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Work Psychologist Talks About Psychometric Models ‒ An Exclusive Interview With Jonas Lang

Jonas is work psychologist and has from early on in his career developed keen interest in accurately measuring what nobody can see – psychological and organizational characteristics like engagement, motivation, skills, or abilities. He has published more than sixty (60) papers in leading academic journals including many articles on psychological and organizational measurement, motivation, and climate in groups. Jonas also worked as an Associate Editor for the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology and as the Editor of the Journal of Personnel Psychology so he is quite familiar with psychological research in organizations. He also won the Jeanneret Award for Excellence in the Study of Individual or Group Assessment from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

His key academic contributions include a psychometric model to solve a key problem in the measurement of motivation that was not fully solved for many years. He also developed a method to capture the development of psychological climate in groups or teams over time. One of his most recent projects is a summary of the literature on psychometric modeling more broadly together with Louis Tay. Their work includes recommendations for more broadly utilizing psychometric techniques in organizations. Jonas has a long history of collaborating with governmental organizations and selection companies on large-scale psychometric projects. Recently, Jonas has moved beyond academia with a mission to apply what he has learned across a wider range of organizations and even small businesses.

Jonas Lang, Work Psychologist

How can organizations profit from work psychologists’ expertise?

In many ways and many work psychologists are of course very experienced in tasks like coaching, training, providing feedback, etc., as individuals. Of course, also a work psychology doctoral degree or master’s degree does not immediately make you perfect in tasks that require experience. However, there are also some tasks that only we can really do well because the expertise is quite unique to our profession.

One tasks that maybe is more important than ever and where I see a lot of potential for organizations is psychological measurement. The business world discusses psychological concepts like motivation, engagement, agility, future orientation or people orientation maybe more than ever, so in a way, there is a boom in interest on psychological expertise. Many organizations even have their own competence models or perspectives on these concepts and it is frequently how business leaders talk these days. It is only natural that organizations also seek to measure psychological concepts in employees, applicants, teams, or leaders. However, the fact that a term or concept makes intuitive sense does not mean that it can easily be measured and in a way that is distinct from other similar concepts. This is one area where well-trained work psychologists can be very helpful. They possess the psychometric expertise to help organizations develop or improve measurement tools that ensure that they can actually measure what they want to measure. Quality control can be quite important because of course you are making important decisions about people that critically contribute to your success.

Another area where psychologists can be very helpful is actually theory. A trend we have seen in recent years is that organizations increasingly possess vast amounts of data or “big” data. That’s of course great but frequently you also need a theoretical perspective helping you to understand what may be going on behind all of this data. Work psychologists typically have a quite good overview of theories that can provide context of what may be going on.

How does psychological measurement work?

Most modern psychological measurement uses psychometric models. A psychometric model statistically describes how responses to smaller measurement units like questions in a survey or tasks of a situational judgement test should combine into a measurement scale. Most people are very accustomed to measuring things the temperature in the morning to decide what to wear, or to measuring the volume of gas in a car's tank to decide when they should drive to the gas station. The thermometer has certain spacing between the marks on it that should have a certain meaning. In the same way, a psychometric scale should have particular characteristics so that it can be meaningfully be interpreted. Psychometric models typically also quantify uncertainty or measurement precision to ensure that nobody overinterprets these types of measurements. This idea that something like a psychological concept as engagement can be measured on a trustworthy scale may sound counterintuitive to some people. They may think of psychological concepts as being "soft" so that not all people seem to initially assume that it is possible to use psychometric methods to measure them. However, the precision of psychometric measurements can be quite impressive if they are used to their full potential.

Are psychological measurements methods a recent innovation? Or have these techniques existed for a long time?

Many basic ideas and concepts in this literature are 60 to 70 years old but the same can be said of many concepts and ideas in computer science. Historically, psychometric models have especially been used for assessment by very large organizations and frequently public organizations or in education where many of the techniques were originally developed and applied. Initially, many of these techniques used to be difficult to use in practice because, for example, one needed a computer as large as a football stadium for estimating simple models. These times are long gone and basically, any normal laptop computer can estimate very advanced models. Also the software is much more widely available so the only barrier is the training of work psychologists and a tradition and willingness in organizations to use these techniques to gain a competitive advantage.

Do you sometimes face skepticism when you suggest to implement these techniques in organization?

Of course. Some people initially prefer to trust their gut feelings. I think it is human to try to maintain control over people you work with but psychometric measurement does not take the decision from you, it only provides you with the information to make the best possible decision. Imagine you would go to a doctor with an unknown illness ‒ would you want the doctor to diagnose you on gut feelings or perform rigorous measurements to make a well-informed and best possible decision.

My experience is also that many organizations are of course very familiar and accustomed to using technology. In many industries, people and salaries are actually the largest cost for companies. It seems counterintuitive to not use the latest innovations in this area. In most cases, people just need to warm to the idea of using technology for their workforce. An anecdote is a manager of a plant breeding company who argued that he was skeptical. He was quite surprised when a person from his staff told him that they were using almost identical prediction methods for making decisions on their product and actually had two statisticians on their staff who were only hired for that purpose.

There is a lot of recent speculation about how the emergence of AI may change the workplace. What do you think will happen for work psychologists?

Most technological revolutions on the one hand render some tasks obsolete and on the other hand also create new tasks. Specifically for work psychologists, some of the more lower-level types of tasks frequently done by them like screening CVs, searching for candidates online, writing reports to explain the outcomes of searches or developmental assessments, or writing items for assessment tools may become easier and less work-intense in the future. At the same time, some of the more advanced tasks like determining how and when to use AI and how to evaluate its impact are at the heart of work psychology. Overall, I believe that the trend we have seen over the last couple of years with an increasing demand for data-analytic skills and psychological measurement skills will become more intense. In line with this trend, in the US, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently added Industrial and Organizational Psychology to the STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Optional Practical Training (OPT) program so the field is also more widely seen as fundamentally a technology field. This being noted, I believe other typical tasks that cannot be done by AI like leadership training or assessment centers and need to be done in person will probably continue to be relevant.

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