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A Conversation with Lisa Steelman, Associate Professor

Industrial/organizational psychology “makes a difference to people and the organizations within which they work,” Steelman says.

By University Alliance

Lisa Steelman Organizational Psychology Professor (1)Applied psychology can be defined as the use of psychological principles to solve practical problems. For Lisa Steelman, Associate Professor and Director of the Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology program at Florida Tech, using the principles of applied psychology allows her to do “work that matters in people’s lives.”

Steelman's research focuses on employee engagement and its role in wellbeing, women’s leadership, and feedback and coaching in the workplace.

"Feedback is critical for learning and growing both in the workplace and in school," she said. "It enables learners to adjust along the way if needed and develop realistic plans for achieving their goals."

We spoke with Steelman about the growth of I/O psychology, the strengths of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts at Florida Tech, and how women can strive for leadership roles in their careers.

Q. Can you tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in industrial-organizational psychology?

I have a BS in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MA and PhD in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology from the University of Akron. I became interested in I/O psychology because I have always enjoyed the disciplines of psychology and business and I/O is right at their intersection. It is the perfect blend of applying principles of psychology to the workplace.

I enjoy doing applied psychology and work that matters in people's lives. I spent several years consulting for Fortune 500 organizations until I decided I wanted to refocus my work on research and teaching (and not flying all over North America). Now I teach I/O psychology at Florida Tech, I chair the on-campus MS and PhD programs in I/O, and I am currently developing an online MA in Organizational Leadership.

Q. According to federal statistics, industrial-organizational psychology will be the fastest-growing occupation nationwide in the coming years. What factors do you believe are driving this employment growth?

I/O makes a difference to people and the organizations within which they work. I/O psychologists work with organizations at all stages of employment from recruiting, assessment and selection, to training and development, to job design and performance management. I/O psychology is able to demonstrate its financial impact to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations in a vernacular that organizations can buy into – dollars and cents. For instance, if organizations hire the right people for the job, they can save money by having employees that contribute right away, need less training and development, and are less likely to leave, which saves money on search and replacement.

Because the field of I/O is very research- and evidence-based, I/O psychologists know how to gather evidence on the financial utility of their solutions and present it in a way that has meaning for organizational leaders. This is one of the critical reasons why I/O psychology is growing.

I enjoy doing applied psychology and work that matters in people's lives.

Q. What are the strengths of Florida Tech’s College of Psychology and Liberal Arts?

Some of the differentiators of Florida Tech’s College of Psychology and Liberal Arts include: a rigorous education; a diversity of faculty and courses means there is a lot of opportunity to learn and discover; and an equally balanced focus on evidence (research) and application. Florida Tech’s College of Psychology and Liberal Arts provides students with exceptional opportunities in both research and application to augment their coursework.

Q. You have researched the role of feedback and coaching in the workplace. How might your findings be applied in an educational setting, particularly an online environment?

Feedback is critical for learning and growing both in the workplace and in school. It enables learners to adjust along the way if needed and develop realistic plans for achieving their goals. There is some research demonstrating that receiving critical feedback electronically is more palatable to employees (e.g., via email). Future research could certainly extend this to an online learning environment.

At the moment we can predict that feedback provided in an online environment may be more accepted and better utilized by learners, provided it is clear, accurate and given with empathy from a credible source. That’s a lot to remember! In practice, it means that instructors should have appropriate credentials, demonstrate their mastery of the material and provide structured feedback kindly.

Q. You have written about the challenges women face in ascending to leadership positions. What tips would you offer women who hope to advance in their careers?

Women face a number of obstacles in the workplace. First are the well-known work-family/life balance issues. Second are other people’s biases. Although these biases are less overt and more subtle than they used to be, they suggest that women have to work harder and perform better than their male counterparts to keep up. These biases also place women in a “double-bind.” Women who appear too tough and dominant are not well-liked and women who are too feminine are less likely to be viewed as leaders. Both of these affect women’s progression in the workplace.

At the moment, the recommendation is that women balance toughness with empathy, which is not always easy to do. Third, evidence from our research lab and others suggests women do indeed have lower confidence in themselves than their male counterparts. Although there is a lot of popular press about women’s lack of confidence, research evidence suggests it is very real. Women with lower confidence may not put themselves forward for promotions, key job opportunities or even raises.

Based on the current evidence, the best advice for women who wish to advance in their careers is to balance tough decision-making with empathy, have confidence in yourself and outperform others. Easy, right?

Q. With Millennials now comprising the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, how will this impact initiatives aimed at boosting employee engagement?

Although there is a lot of discussion about what to do about Millennials in the workplace, there is little credible evidence that Millennials are any different than other generations. Most of the research is not conducted rigorously enough to have confidence in the implications. In other words, most research in this area is correlational. Since we can’t infer causation from correlation, we cannot for sure say that being a Millennial has caused any of the differences seen in the workplace.

Based on credible studies, the only differences that have emerged so far are that Millennials may be more narcissistic than other generations and they may have more comfort with technology.

It pays to remember that the much-maligned slackers of Generation X are now running companies and countries!

Want to learn more about Florida Tech’s fascinating faculty? Check out our Faculty Interviews series here.

Category: Faculty Interviews