Crazy Productive: What Is Industrial Psychology?

Starting a city from scratch is no small feat: You need a mayor, a city council, a police chief and … a psychologist?

Since incorporating in December 2006, the city of Milton, Ga., has been experiencing some growing pains. The mayor and the six members of the city council aren't just getting used to running a town, they're also just getting used to one another.

And that's caused a few problems. So, the city council decided to address them with the help of retreats and an industrial psychologist.

But their attempts to bring some harmony to city hall, have been, well, less than civil.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a council retreat mediated by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government turned into a meeting about respecting one another's feelings, and despite new rules of conduct, members continue to accuse other members of lying in open council meetings.

"We're all new at this, and we just need time to figure things out," Mayor Joe Lockwood told "We've all got strengths and we've all got weaknesses, and we hoped an industrial psychologist could help us maximize those strengths."

Plans to hire a psychologist to advise the council on how best to work together were, according to the mayor, met with a certain degree of skepticism by the local media and some people in town. But, he said, industrial psychologists regularly advise major corporations.

"A city is like a company, the council is like the board of directors and the mayor is like the chairman of a company," Lockwood said. "It wouldn't be any different for a big company. We'll do team building and organizational training. … In the private world this is totally normal."

That's true, according to David Nershi, the executive director of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Some 3,000 corporations, including most Fortune 500 companies, employ industrial psychologists, Nershi said.

Members of the society have made presentations in the past year at PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Starbucks and Payless Shoes conferences, he said.

What Is Industrial Psychology?

"Basically [industrial] psychology focuses on understanding people in organizations. Our members are not so much mental health professional as they are people who apply psychology to the workplace," he said.

Companies use industrial psychologists to "measure job knowledge and skills, determine hiring and to evaluate training and employee motivation and attitude," Nershi said.

Stephen Marshal has been an industrial psychologist for more than 30 years.

"Unlike private therapists," he said, industrial psychologists "are focused on a company's bottom line."

Companies need outside experts, Marshal said, to apply scientific principles to evaluating employees. By knowing which employee is the most potentially productive, companies can hire and promote individuals and reorganize divisions.

Marshal said two of the tools he most often uses to evaluate people are a personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and something called "360-degree feedback."

The Myers-Briggs Test separates people into several different personality types within the broad categories of introverted and extroverted.

Three-sixty-degree feedback evaluates an employee's performance by interviewing his peers, subordinates and managers.

In the end, Marshal said, performance, not employee happiness, is the industrial psychologist's No. 1 priority.

"Much of my work is working with teams to create high-performance teams. Getting along is great, but working to help clients is better," he said.

Is This All Just Bull?

Despite the science practitioners claim is behind their methods, industrial psychology is not without its detractors.

In his book "100 Bulls**t Jobs … And How to Get Them," author and Fortune magazine columnist Stanley Bing accuses industrial psychologists of blowing a lot of hot air.

The problem with industrial psychology, he said, is that it focuses on the wrong problems.

"In my view, at best industrial psychology can do no harm, and at worst it can be a force for organizational fascism within the company," Bing told "It makes people adjust to the organization, when the organization is what needs adjusting.

"[Industrial psychologists] are a Band-Aid a lot of the time, which clueless people try to put on a problem in order to create the illusion of doing something to fix it."

The Milton City Council may never get the time it wants with an industrial psychologist.

The council has been paying psychologist Doug Griest $6,400 for consulting. But when local reporters demanded to be let in on the meetings, Griest said it would violate doctor-patient confidentiality.

According to Mayor Lockwood, the council is now deciding whether its members should waive their confidentiality rights, meet individually with Griest, or cancel the counseling.

Bing offers another suggestion for the council members.

"This is not a mental problem where people are having trouble adjusting. These people just hate each other and probably for good reason. They don't need a psychologist … they just need to do their jobs."