How I Became an Organizational Psychologist

By Dr. Walter Reichman

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” is a question I heard very often from a large family of aunts, uncles , their friends as well as random people I encountered. This question had a powerful effect on me. For one thing, they expected me to grow up. I was a pretty happy kid and liked the status quo and from the grown- ups I knew I didn’t see much advantage to growing up. It also meant that they expected me to “be” something. What was it I was supposed to “be.” I had no idea.

I did well in elementary school. I reached the pinnacle of success when I became captain of the monitors in the 7th grade. I was now responsible for the wellbeing of every kid from kindergarten through the 8th grade during the time they arrived at school to when they entered the building in straight lines in size places. Such leadership came with certain perks which I relished, such as choosing line monitors, or pardoning my peers who violated the playground yard decorum.

I almost became valedictorian of my class. Whatever criterion they used in selection left me tied with my friend Bobby. Our Principal asked us both to give a speech before her and she would decide which one of us would present it at graduation. She decided on Bobby Abrams. I do not recall being upset because Bobby was a good friend and probably because I realized his speech was better than mine. I heard Bobby speak on many occasions during his career. I heard him speak when he ran for Bronx Borough President, Attorney General of New York, and finally for the United States Senate. I was sorry that my boyhood friend lost to Al D’Amato because he would have made a good senator and because I had fantasies about the advantage of having a friend in the U.S. Senate. My principal was right in her choice but this probably eliminated a whole string of potential occupations from my consideration. I never again thought seriously about being a writer, a lawyer or an actor.

My other career thoughts during those years was to become Secretary-General of the United Nations. When I expressed that to my 10-year-old friends the expressions on their faces eliminated that from serious consideration. They all wanted to be Joe DiMaggio or some other Yankee baseball player.

I moved onto a prestigious high school, The Bronx High School of Science. I had to pass an entrance exam to be accepted and, much to my surprise and to the delight of my parents, uncles, aunts, their friends, and assorted other people, I did pass. I spent four years at Bronx Science and learned that I was not cut out to be a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or physician. My parents, however, decided I should become a pharmacist. They would open a drug store and I would be the pharmacist. As a 15-year-old thinking of independence and breaking away from their antiquated way of life, this was anathema. I think I never learned to balance a chemical equation out of fear it would lead me to a drug store.

I entered City College knowing what I did not want to be but not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wanted liberal arts. I liked history, English, sociology, anthropology, but what could you do with that? Usually, just teach. And I was certain that I did not want to be a teacher. When I took interest tests and aptitude tests at the City College Counseling Center, all the data said be a teacher and I said NO. I was generally not impressed with the teachers I had in high school and the thought of having to teach students like me seemed the most boring way to spend my life. Yet the tests were correct, and when I taught my first class as a graduate student, it immediately changed me. I spent 40 glorious years as a college teacher, but that came later.

There was a legend about how a college student becomes a psychology major. He has a personal problem, so he takes a psychology course to solve his problem; his problem isn’t solved, so he takes another psychology course and when his problem is still not solved he takes another and another. By his junior year his problem is still not solved but he has so many credits in psychology he decides to major in it. This was not exactly true for me. It wasn’t a personal problem but a career problem. In psychology, there were other alternatives than teaching. I took psychology courses and liked them, especially the research courses. I particularly liked the idea that decisions were based on probability and not on certainty. The fact that you could not be more than 99% sure that there was a difference between your experimental and control group resonated with me. You could still be wrong even if you thought you were right. There was always the probability that the next experiment would prove you wrong, and I liked the uncertainty of the science. What I did not like was the particular topics of our experiments. I was not interested in rats running mazes, cats in lock boxes, or conditioning rats to avoid a shock. I wanted to deal with human beings directly. As a result, I considered clinical psychology as a possibility but decided to take a course in industrial psychology at the business school of City College. I liked the idea of business. My father had a small business, and I worked summers in department stores, wholesale dry goods stores, and in clothing chain stores. I thought I might like psychology applied to business.

And I did. In my undergraduate class I read the Hawthorne studies, which demonstrated you could improve production by incorporating your employees in the work and decision-making process. I learned that groups of workers formed a culture and society, and a good manager was aware of that culture. I learned about motivation and its implications for bringing about a successful enterprise as well as a successful life. I learned about the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Carl Roger’s focus on interpersonal relationships as it affected business practices. I learned about the difference in motivation as described by McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, with Theory Y having faith in the good intentions of workers as the appropriate basis for a successful management system. I was impressed by Marrow’s research that showed that participation in decision making increases worker’s productivity. I learned about different styles of leadership and its interaction with the work situation as a way of leading people to achieve goals for themselves and their organization. This was all accomplished through applied research, where the subjects were people and the behavior being studied was human behavior in real life situations. At that time, there was also an important and meaningful controversy in industrial psychology relating to the selection of people for jobs. It was a time when psychologists were being publicly criticized and legally sued for discrimination over selection techniques. I witnessed the responses of organizational psychologists to the criticism and their development of innovative ideas and procedures to avoid discrimination. It was an exciting enterprise and I wanted to be a part of it.

I graduated City College as a psychology major, and knew that I wanted to do research that would be of use to people at work and at the same time help business organizations thrive. In my fantasies, I was presenting my ground-breaking research to the president of General Motors as we figured out how to adapt it to the auto industry. I finally knew what I wanted to be. Now I had to figure out how to become what I wanted to be. I had to achieve the required credentials to become an industrial- organizational psychologist. I still had a long road ahead in a world that was changing, and in a discipline that was changing, but I was changing along with it, and I was excited for the challenge.

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part five of a new series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

Email Dr. Reichman directly for more information.