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Steve Apps
Former Chair, ABP, and Certification Lead.

The ABP started life as the Association of Business Psychologists. However, over time, the ABP wanted to be more inclusive in its membership and rebrand itself as the Association for Business Psychology. At a stroke, observed Steve Apps; this demonstrated that the Association was open to anyone interested in Business Psychology (BP), broadened the base of the potential membership, and gave the Association more of a sense of purpose. This provided the basis for a lively and highly informative discussion on how BPs might describe their work and how they might market themselves.

Ten years ago, if you had been asked the question “What is a Business Psychologist?” there would have been a wide variety of answers, and anyone would have had difficulty in differentiating between a Business Psychologist and an Occupational Psychologist. Then 3-4 years ago, a serious attempt was made to define “Business Psychologist”.

It is interesting to note that there is now much greater awareness of this term. A LinkedIn search identifies 3700 entries. This is not a small number when considering that BP still means many things to different people. Attendees on the call corroborated this assertion: answers varied from “Transforming one human at a time” to delivering coaching and related support. Steve admitted to answering the question differently depending on the particular role and client activity. Being a Business Psychologist is a label from which enquirers can make a load of assumptions, but without dispute, BPs care about applying psychological principles in business.

The term can still have unsettling connotations, like being a “psychiatrist”. Yet to some BPs, using a narrow definition can turn out to be hugely restrictive. Most BPs don’t want to appear to limit their activities to the lesser understood term “business psychologist” because it might preclude consideration of other more readily understood activities by clients, such as assessment and coaching.

Steve challenged us to distil our activities into 2-3 words. After a conversation rich in content, Steve admitted that “most of my world is as a student of communication”, teaching others to be good communicators and confident collaborators at work. A good Business Psychologist can help people unlock challenges that others face daily.

This sparked a discussion about overlapping disciplines and the extent to which these overlaps create confusion in the minds of clients, users and others on the periphery. However, valiant attempts are being made to delineate different disciplines, such as Occupational psychologists, Business psychologists, HR professionals and Coaching psychologists. The resulting analysis seems to identify more overlaps than distinct differences!

We can perhaps identify broader BP roles and areas of activity, as follows:

• Addressing individual worker needs to increase their engagement and performance
• Helping people to be the best they can be through their behaviour, actions and emotions
• Addressing the business need to increase organisational performance

Other contributors considered that a business psychologist brings a scientific method as an automatic action to organisations rather than a mostly qualitative approach. Sometimes HR professionals will take a rigorous end to end process, but that depends on the nature of the problem and how seriously they take the issue. BPs perhaps aim for a scientific approach by default. At least one would hope so!

If the 3700 people could come to some kind of agreement on what they do, then there could be much more collective confidence. “Are you a business psychologist?” elicited a vast range of responses:

• I work on the people side of organisations, to include team building
• It’s a conversation opener
• I develop Business Brands
• I care about people at work
• Work better – better wellbeing
• Help people navigate the organisational adventures of life
• Help people learn and grow

Perhaps a better approach might be to review outcomes rather than attempts at definitions. The meeting made a few suggestions:

• BPs address how organisations make problem decisions without regard to the impact on people involved in those decisions, thereby improving the decision making process.
• BPs try to pay more attention to the end to end process than those in other disciplines. They spend time thinking and researching rather than picking a solution off the shelf.
• BPs have to be much more rigorous than those in other related disciplines. As a result, BP projects can be higher value-added, although, in reality, additional budgets are often not forthcoming: a squeeze on budgets can force a “quick and dirty version”, which might include some basic Research, limited Quantitative Analysis, followed up by Qualitative Interviews.
• An effective approach that mostly leads to good outcomes is storytelling, especially when backed up by appropriate reasoning. An example is an explanation of Amygdala responses in business contexts in arriving at a solution to assist an employee in settling into their workplace environment.
• A more robust approach to the development of Business Psychology has been the certification process which provides BPs with a much more solid foundation and enhanced credibility.

The broad welcoming approach adopted by the Association in the last four years has encouraged engagement with such diverse groups as coaches and advertising specialists. This has made it a much more inclusive organisation, representing those leaders and managers in organisations who wish to take a psychological approach to their work, whether they are qualified psychologists or not. The challenge for the next phase of ABP development is to give members greater credibility and hence credibility with their clients, whatever their specific interest and the appropriate evolution of the certification process is key to this.

In conclusion, Board member Dawn Nicholson has arrived at possibly the best definition so far of a Business Psychologist, their interests and how their activities link to outcomes.

A business psychologist represents the interaction of two vital and valuable areas – business and psychology. They need to have a deep appreciation and understanding of both of these areas and how they interact. And then they need to apply that knowledge – for me, the application is key. That application may take many forms – for example, working in or with companies to improve employee and employer outcomes. In these instances, the focus may encompass more ‘traditional’ areas such as HR, L&D, culture change, etc. Increasingly, however, business psychologists are found in new and different fields – marketing (consumer behaviour, product development), supply chain (team processes and dynamics), AI (human and AI interaction, cyber), finance (investor behaviour, behavioural economics). The list is endless.
While some may be more involved in the application directly, working with internal or external clients on the design and/or implementation of solutions, etc., I think all business psychologists need to be able to translate theory into practice and understand how their knowledge can impact.

However, the meeting concluded that much work still needed to be done around the subject of “What do you do” and making the answers sufficiently compelling such that what Business Psychologists do can be celebrated with greater levels of conviction while recognising the diversity of activities and outcomes.

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