Critical Organisational Psychology

Matthew McDonald and David Bubna-Litic

Social psychology has had a significant impact on the way we think about organisational life. Flick through any text book on organisational behaviour, introductory management or human resources and you will see, prominently featured, social psychology topics such as personality, attitudes, social identity, attribution, teams, leadership, decision-making, communication and conflict. These text books draw on a range of classic and contemporary social psychological conceptions such as the Big Five Factors, cognitive dissonance, social categorisation, social facilitation, persuasion, conformity and obedience, to name just a few.

Social psychologists can rightly feel a sense of achievement regarding their contribution to the scholarly understanding of organisational life. The impact of psychological theories applied at the social level stretches back to the early 1900s. Social psychological techniques were used in the recruitment and selection of men and women who served in World War I and II (Vinchur & Koppes, 2010). In the 1930s, the Australian social psychologist Elton Mayo conducted the now famous Hawthorn Studies, which instituted employee attitude surveys, and influenced the course of studies into motivation, job design and performance for decades to come. During World War II, the hugely popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test for example was

M. McDonald (*)

RMIT University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam D. Bubna-Litic

University of Technology Sydney, NSW, Australia © The Author(s) 2017

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_29

developed to assist women to identify the kind of job for the war effort they would be most suited to (Briggs-Myers & Myers, 1995). In the 1950s, social psychologists undertook a range of organisational studies investigating teamwork, decision-making and leadership (McDonald & Bubna-Litic, 2012).

However, many of the theories and research drawn from social psychology are often uncritically taught in universities and are accepted and employed by organisational practitioners, many of whom are unaware its contested nature (e.g., Erington & Bubna-Litic, 2015). Important historical events and ongoing debates in social psychology around philosophical issues concerning its ontology, such as its individual/social split, and epistemology, such as the use of laboratory experiments, continue to cause dissent and separatism (Elms, 1975; Pancer, 1997; Parker, 1989; Stainton-Rogers, 2011). These are among many issues that tend to go unexamined in mainstream organisational behaviour textbooks.

An example of this can be seen in the use and application of personality theories and the significant industry that promotes the use of scaled questionnaires used to measure it. Personality scales purport to measure what becomes taken at face value and seen by practitioners as the primary cause of an individual’s behaviour. Similarly, the use of scaled questionnaires used to measure personality are viewed as largely unproblematic and seen as reliable and valid measures for use in employee recruitment, selection and career development (e.g., Robbins & Judge, 2011). Despite the many questions that hang over the use of personality scales in the workplace, the majority of organisational behaviour textbooks typically downplay interpretation problems, often only highlighting the potential for employees to cheat or fake their answers (Vecchio, 2006).

In keeping with the overall theme of this handbook, the aim of this chapter is three fold: (1) to review the existing critical social psychology literature applied to organisations, termed here ‘critical organisational psychology’; (2) discuss theoretical perspectives that critical social psychologists can draw on that build on the existing literature; and (3) report on some current trends. Each of these sections will discuss existing studies and point out, where appropriate, how they might contribute to new lines of research in the area of critical social psychology generally.

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