Get a deep dive on this fascinating and diverse field of psychology.
“The most fulfilling part of my job is when a student comes back to me and says, ‘Dr. Lopez, I shared this new thought with my boss based on what we discussed in class, and we're going to try something with it,’ and that's always exciting. I always say to them, don’t be afraid to try new ideas and give it your own personal touch.”
Dr. Denise Lopez is a professor in the organizational psychology program of the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University. Denise grew up and attended undergraduate school in the Philippines but her journey into the organizational psychology field took many turns.
After earning her doctorate at Columbia University in New York City and working as a management consultant for a few years, Denise came across an ad that Alliant was looking for professors in the organizational psychology department at their Los Angeles campus. “I liked the scholar-practitioner philosophy of the program and that they wanted professors who were academically trained and theoretically knowledgeable. I felt I had a lot of experience to share with students and that it was a good fit.”
Denise explains that the field of organizational psychology has two branches: industrial psychology and organizational psychology. Industrial psychology is the historical basis of this field which started with testing in psychometrics, employee selection, and employee placement. It became very active and popular during World War II when the U.S. government was trying to recruit, select, and place people to serve in different positions in the army. It later evolved into other areas of organizational life such as work motivation, training and leadership development, organizational culture, and organization change and development. “I was more interested in the employee development, leadership training, and the change management aspects of the field. That’s how I started working for a global consulting firm doing employee engagement and employee satisfaction surveys. It was exciting because we worked with senior leadership at multinational organizations to identify their strengths and areas for opportunity and help them think through what employees are looking for in the workplace and what would motivate them to be more productive and committed.”
Even when she started her career as a marketing management trainee at a multinational company, Denise was drawn to the organizational psychology side of things. “In the end, I didn't quite find meaning in figuring out ways to market the company’s products, but I was fascinated by their methodologies in developing their leadership management development program. I could see that there was an entire preparation and philosophy in how they were thinking about how they select and develop these high-profile management trainees. They had us go through different departments every few months as part of our training. They had a very rigorous way of testing and looking for management trainees that included IQ tests, both group and one-on-one interviews, and even an experiential process where the finalists interact with their senior leaders to measure intelligence and how we relate to people and present ourselves.”
It's no surprise that one of the biggest changes Denise has seen in the workplace is how employers and employees are valuing and defining work life in a post-pandemic world. Denise notes that companies are very open to the hybrid work model because employees want that. “My main area of specialization involves work motivation and employee engagement. I recently co-wrote a book called, Lead, Motivate, Engage, with Dr. Pearl Hilliard, and we are currently in the process of updating it because a lot has changed since its first publication in 2019.” Denise believes the hybrid situation is a good mix because it caters to both extroverts and introverts.
Denise has also seen employers pay more attention to stress and mental health. “In our field, we call it subjective well-being and it's really how people relate to stress or how they're able to avoid burnout and take care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.” Denise also addressed the topic of artificial intelligence and how that is stoking fears for some people. “I think the fear is that things are going to get so automated that we are not going to be able to give people work. This is becoming more of a subject of conversation in the field of IO psychology. Where is the divide between what the machines can do and where should humans do the decision-making? I think where we are going with that is ethics, which is also a subject I teach at Alliant. One example of this is ethics in the fairness of hiring and selecting employees. Because the machines don't have a lot of data on minorities, the tendency is always to recommend the more common majority candidates. If you just go with the algorithms, the majority wins. This is why you still need to have a person come in and examine if the decision-making or recommendation is fair.”
While psychology attracts people who are interested in helping others, the organizational psychology field offers a lot of flexibility and creativity in how people can tailor a career for themselves. “I had an interest in applying psychology in a business setting and I wanted to work with people who wanted to become better leaders who could create better more engaging workplaces for individuals and teams. Organizations typically work with IO psychologists to help develop strategic interventions that motivate and develop employees, and manage organizational changes.”
Organizational psychology is a very analytical field, but Denise has even seen people with creative backgrounds get accepted into the organizational psychology program. She finds that these candidates often bring different skills or a way of thinking that can strengthen their future careers or be an advantage in their job options. “Some years ago, we had a graduate student with a fine arts background in our program. She ended up working as an organization development consultant for a high-end furniture design company and has even created her own business delivering online courses that blend both the art and the science of working with people. So, that's one example and I'm very proud of her. There's a lot of creativity that you can use in the way you teach, convey information, or train and coach people.”
Denise loves working at Alliant, especially the diversity and inclusion aspect. She believes that makes it unique and very attractive to incoming students who want to work in a global environment with multicultural leaders, which is a great advantage for people in the IO psychology field. She also loves that her students conduct applied work and research and that they can immediately go out and apply everything they learn in the classroom to their work. “The most fulfilling part of my job is when a student comes back to me and says, ‘Dr. Lopez, I shared this new thought with my boss based on what we discussed in class, and we're going to try something with it,’ and that's always exciting. I always say to them, don’t be afraid to try new ideas and give it your personal touch.”
Denise also assigns real-world projects that her students can discuss when they’re interviewing for jobs to share as strong examples of what they can bring to a company. When asked for more advice for interviewing, Denise added, “First, understand what the job description is, what you need to be able to deliver, and the tools and skills you need to showcase and match it to your knowledge and experience. Second, always think like the hiring manager and understand what he or she is looking for. The third, which is the secret sauce to this, is to show in the interview how you relate to the hiring manager and how they can see you as part of their team. That is where I think the personal touch makes the difference.”