The Evolution of Workplace Psychology: From Conformity to Inclusivity – Source of the Month (October 2023)

In today’s world, diversity and inclusion are values that many organizations proclaim to have at the forefront of their agenda. Creating environments in which employees from all backgrounds feel valued and respected is often stated as a priority. The journey towards this focus on inclusivity is rooted in the historical evolution of workplace psychology. A century ago, the emphasis was very different, aiming to use psychology to mould employees into conformity rather than valuing diversity of personality. As part of Black Introvert Week UK 2023, this blog post will explore the changing priorities of employers over the last century.

Early Psychology for Conformity

The use of psychology in employment contexts has a history dating back before the First World War and was pioneered by Hugo Münsterberg, the German-American psychologist who was the founder of industrial psychology. During this period, psychological principles were adopted by industries to optimise worker engagement, adjustment and productivity. Notably, the researcher Elton Mayo, a leading figure in the new ‘Human Relations’ school, played a pivotal role in advocating for the application of psychological insights in workplaces.

One of the early pioneers in this field was Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, the head of the famous chocolate manufacturer. In 1921, Rowntree played a major role in the foundation of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. As an employer, he saw potential in psychology for recruitment, worker engagement, and marketing. Rowntree’s even established a psychology department in 1922 and employed psychologists at the Cocoa Works at York, which marked a significant development in the use of psychology in the workplace.

The use of psychological tests, pioneered during World War I, also gained prominence during this era. These tests aimed to categorise employees based on their responses and abilities. While these tests were seen as a valuable tool, they also had their limitations, and their interpretation required a deep understanding of experimental psychology.

In a June 1938 article, The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management (the magazine of the Industrial Welfare Society) feature an article on the significance of engagement in the workplace. The article also highlighted the potential benefits of psychological tests, although it warned the reader that interpreting psychology tests required expertise.

An article from May 1932 in Labour Management (the journal of the Institute of Labour Management) discussed the training of personnel workers in the United States. It emphasised the importance of practical experience over theoretical knowledge, using psychological tests and measurements as part of the training process. However, it also acknowledged the need for personnel workers to be more than psychologists.

The Post-War Revival of Workplace Psychology

After the Second World War, when psychological testing was used by the British and American armed forces, the world underwent significant transformations, including the field of psychology. The experience of the war had raised questions about human behaviour and how authoritarian leaders could sway populations through propaganda, a term that had not previously carried negative connotations. Psychologists began to explore personality traits and their impact on individual perceptions and behaviour.

One significant development during this period was the emergence of the ‘authoritarian personality’ concept. Researchers sought to understand why some individuals were more susceptible to propaganda and authoritarianism. This exploration of personality traits led to the development of various psychological tests aimed at capturing a picture of these traits, which became known as psychometric testing.

These developments in psychology were seen as having scope for communication professionals. From its formative years after the Second World War, Public Relations was heavily influenced by psychology. PR professionals sought to influence and bring about changes in perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours through communication. Understanding the characteristics of individuals and their personality traits can be instrumental in crafting effective communication strategies. Similarly, employers saw the scope for using psychology for managing their employees.

In 1975, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was introduced, marking a significant new step in the use of psychology in the workplace. This assessment tool described personality along dimensions such as introversion and extroversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, and judging and perceiving. It classified individuals into sixteen personality types based on their responses to a questionnaire. While further tests have been devised since, the Myers-Briggs test remains hugely influential in this arena.

The 1970s Discourse on Integrating Immigrants

Concurrent with this discourse of workplace psychology, but separate from it, was the rise of managerial discussion of how to integrate immigrant workers. The preoccupation at this time was very much with language barriers. An article from the Industrial Society magazine from 1974 stated that:

“Good communication has long been recognised as an integral part of smooth industrial relations. Yet in many organisations in this country there is a language barrier between employees which must be overcome before good communication can even begin.”

Taken from Industrial Society, Sep-Oct 1974, pp. 18-20.

The article described the efforts of the Pathway Industrial Unit in Ealing to provide language training programmes that benefit both English-speaking and immigrant workers. It emphasised the positive impact of such training on work quality, productivity, and relationships between employees and supervisors, while addressing challenges related to job satisfaction and career advancement due to language limitations. Despite this emphasis, the article went on to say:

“It is dangerous to lay all the blame on language problems however. The immigrant/ union relationship can be badly affected by policies of inequality just as the employee/ employer relationship can be. Immigrants are unlikely to show loyalty to trade unions which do not appear to act in their interests, which maintain differentials between jobs for white workers and those for immigrants, and which do not allow them their share in representation.”

Black Introvert Week UK

While this was a marked break from earlier discourses, diversity of personality among immigrant employees received no attention in the Industrial Society article. As such, Black Introvert Week UK is seeking a break from the discourses of the past. It promotes the recognition of diversity of personality, with a particular focus on black employees. The initiative challenges traditional personality tests like Myers-Briggs, making the case that these often place greater value on employees with extroverted traits.

In particular, the campaign raises awareness about the unique experiences of black introverts and the multiple barriers that people must navigate. The intersectionality of race and personality biases can lead to people feeling misunderstood due to their quieter nature. Leadership is an area in which there are particularly distinct challenges, with pressures for managers to boost their own visibility and combat potential misunderstandings and exclusion.

While the historical articles from the 1970s primarily focused on language as a barrier for immigrant workers, they also recognised the complexities of communication and its impact on workplace relationships. Similarly, Black Introvert Week UK addresses the complex issue of diversity of personality and its impact on how individuals are perceived and treated in professional settings.

In both cases, the recognition of barriers is seen as a crucial first step toward creating inclusive work environments. Black Introvert Week UK aims to broaden the biases that receive attention, with the ambition for all employees to be valued for their unique qualities regardless of their personality.

Conclusion

The historical evolution of workplace psychology, from moulding employees for conformity to embracing diversity of personality, highlights the extent of the change in views on human behaviour and its impact on the workplace. We find parallels from the early 1970s in which a discourse of creating an inclusive working environment for immigrant employees begins to appear. Yet this discourse was very focused on barriers of language. Black Introvert Week UK demonstrates the changing landscape, where diversity of individuals is beginning to be thought about in broader terms.

Sources

Labour Management (May 1932), pp. 80-81.

The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management (Jun 1938), pp. 225-26

Industrial Society (Sep-Oct 1974), pp. 18-20.

Abbott, Andrew Delano, The Systems of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago, 1988)

Fitzgerald, Robert, British Labour Management and Industrial Welfare, 1846-1939 (London, 1988).

White, Jon, ‘Neurotic… obliger… extrovert… fraud?’, Influence (2018, 2nd Quarter), pp. 61-63.

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