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Lost in Translation: Practical Recommendations for Communicating the Value of I-O Psychology

Andrew Collmus and Michael Litano

Lost in Translation is an eight-part TIP series designed to help I-O psychologists translate their knowledge and experiences into actionable behaviors that can easily be understood by those unfamiliar with the field. Each column will focus on a new topic within I-O psychology that may be difficult to effectively communicate in the field. Our goal is to provide practical recommendations for graduate students, early career professionals, and/or any I-O psychologist hoping to increase their day-to-day effectiveness at work. To achieve this, we are conducting a series of surveys and interviews within SIOP community and relaying the advice and experiences of I-O professionals to you, the SIOP community and TIP readership. We plan to maximize the use of TIP’s innovative new html formatting by providing interactive polls, graphics, and embedded video interviews.

In the introductory column of Lost in Translation, we discussed the rationale behind the series, shared video interviews from some of the most prestigious names in the field describing their own ‘lost in translation’ incidents, and revealed our own personal experiences in which we failed to effectively translate I-O topics to unfamiliar audiences. Since our first column, we have been overwhelmed by the outreach of support and offers to contribute from members of the SIOP community! Please keep them coming. You can reach us at LostinTranslation.TIP@gmail.com if you would like to contribute, comment, or submit an idea for upcoming issue.

The second article in the Lost in Translation series consolidates practical advice from I-O professionals who are effective translators. More specifically, we conducted in-person and virtual interviews and sent a web-based questionnaire designed to understand how a wide variety of I-O professionals approach, implement, and master the art of translation in the workplace and other environments. This advice was transcribed and coded from 25 responses to these interviews, and the practical recommendations fell under two higher-order themes: Preparing for Your Translation Experience and Translating I-O Psychology in the Field. The practical recommendations related to these themes and the five subthemes that emerged are described in greater detail below.
In addition to requesting advice on how to effectively communicate the value of I-O psychology to unfamiliar audiences, we asked our respondents to describe how they explain what I-O psychology is and the value that I-O psychology brings to organizations in terms that anyone can understand. Selected responses from members of the SIOP community can be viewed in the video below. Additionally, because not all of our respondents were available for video interviews, we created a Wordle graphic using all 25 respondents’ answers to these two questions. In these graphics, word size is used to indicate the relative frequency of words appearing in the response set.

The remainder of the article is dedicated to best-practice recommendations from our respondents and is divided into five parts. First, we present a high-level summary of the methods we used to analyze interview responses and how we came to agreement on the emergent themes and subthemes. Second, we define each of the five subthemes and related dimensions, and provide an exemplary quote that encapsulates the spirit of the theme. Third, we provide a table containing the relative frequencies of each theme and subtheme. Fourth, we provide a table with the condensed practical advice obtained from our I-O respondents. Finally, we close this column by touching on a handful of conflicting responses and present an interactive poll designed to gain the perspective of the larger I-O community.


In total, 25 I-O psychologists (14 men, 11 women) were interviewed for the current article. Our sample consisted of 14 practitioners (7 internal and 7 external consultants), 3 applied researchers, 4 university professors, 1 postdoctoral researcher, and 3 graduate students who were interning with external consulting companies.

Using Consensual Qualitative Research Approach (e.g., Hill, Knox, Thompson, Williams, Hess, & Ladany, 2005), each of the two authors independently developed our own themes and coded each response (N = 84). We then met together and determined that our codes could be consolidated into two overarching themes, five subthemes, and the dimensions comprising the subthemes. We once again independently coded each response under the new scheme, reaching a 92.9% agreement. Through discussion, we resolved the discrepancies to come to 100% agreement on all items. 

We determined participants’ responses to fall under two general themes: Preparation for Your Translation Experience and Translating in the Field. The Preparation general theme consists of practices and strategies that I-Os can do ahead of time, either at home or on the job, to prepare for a specific translation context or to generally improve translation skills. This theme was characterized by three primary subthemes: Understand Your Audience, Test on Difference Audiences, and Learn From Others. The In Practice general theme consists of practices and strategies that I-Os can utilize during communication in the field. Two subthemes emerged: Simplify the Presentation of Information and Maintain an SME Mindset. Each of the six coding discrepancies that occurred were related to when the recommendation would be implemented. For example, learning the language of business would fall under the Preparing for Your Translation Experience theme, whereas simplifying the presentation of information by using business language fell under the Translating I-O Psychology in the Field theme. See below, for definitions and exemplary quotes for each theme, subtheme, and related dimensions.

Video 2 – In Preparation 


Video 3 – In Practice



The table below details the frequency of subthemes and dimensions (Hill et al., 2005). It is worth noting that frequency does not necessarily indicate the importance of each subtheme, however, the frequency does represent the percent of interviewees who mentioned the respective theme when providing advice on translation. As noted in Table 1, General themes were mentioned by at least 90% of the interviewees, Typical themes were discussed by at least half of the interviewees, Variant themes were mentioned by less than 50% of the interviewees, and Rare themes were mentioned by only two or 3 respondents.

1. Understand Your Audience

Definition: Prepare for your translation experience by understanding all of the different aspects that make your audience unique.

Needs, goals, and problems. Assess your audience's situation and/or problem. Evaluate and address needs, or gaps between current conditions and desired goals.
Language Understand the language, terminology, acronyms, or metrics that resonate with your intended audience.

Culture and values. Appreciate the set of values, norms, guiding beliefs, and understandings that are shared by members of the organization or intended audience.

Decision makers. Understand the organizational structure, with a particular emphasis on hierarchical authority and decision-making power.

Organizational characteristics. Consider the organizational domain, industry, strategy, size, and market of your intended audience, and its environmental influences.

Exemplary Quotes:

I always try to, in almost any situation, to put myself in the other person’s shoes. So it’s always sort of that perspective-sharing I think that’s important to say “what’s important to them?” or “what are the things they are trying to get out of this dialogue, or this meeting, or this consulting arrangement,” and the more that I don’t focus on myself but try to focus on the other person, I found that’s helped a lot.

Understand the audience, their goals and what they value and the communication culture of the organization. One of the most important lessons I learned early career was to tailor [your message].

You need to have in-depth conversations with your internal champion and figure out how the work needs to be positioned and communicated in the organization.

Let the client talk a lot at first. Really understand their organization, their goals, and their problems. By doing this you are setting up a way to provide well informed solutions… Really listen to all questions. The content of the question itself may illuminate something previously unknown, and ask your own questions, and plenty of them. “Trivial” information isn't always such.

2. Test on Different Audiences

Definition: Practice your translation skills in front of various, nonthreatening audiences (both those familiar and unfamiliar with I-O) and ask for feedback.

Family and friends. Test your translation skills on family members, friends, and community group members.

Non I-O colleagues. Practice translating I-O concepts to colleagues within your organization or department who are not familiar with I-O psychology.

Self. Practice on your own, out loud, or in front of a mirror.

Social media. Test your translation skills through the use of social media (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter).

I-O network. Deliver your “translated message” to other I-O psychology graduate students, practitioners, and academics in your professional network.

Exemplary Quotes:

Test explanations out on family and friends before using them with clients—they are more likely to tell you what they don’t understand than clients

Actually say it out loud—don’t just think about. Things come out differently when you say them than when you just think about it.

Always think through a few ways of explaining a difficult I-O concept before you present to a nontechnical audience. Be prepared for people to not understand you.

3. Learn from others

Definition: Observe and learn from others who are skilled at translation.

I-O peers. Pursue assistance from your network of I-O professionals, including colleagues/peers.

I-O experts. Actively modeling the behavior of senior I-O professionals in your organization or experts in the field of I-O psychology.

Non I-O professionals. Learn from experts and professionals outside of the field of I-O psychology.

Mentor. Actively seek help from a formally assigned or informal mentor or advisor.

Exemplary Quotes:

Read the 10 Day MBA (or similar) and learn to talk business instead of psychology. Read exec summaries of the latest business books so when an exec asks about it, you can say, “Yes, we do that and here's how,” or you can gently steer them away from unproductive or harmful trends.

One thing I tried to do on a recent consulting project was partner with a more senior colleague who had been communicating I-O concepts to non-I-O audiences for most of their career.

Listen to how others describe the field or technical concepts and observe how others respond. When it seems that people followed well, take note of how it was explained. When it seems that people are struggling to keep up, spend some time after the interaction on your own and think about how you would have explained it differently.

4. Simplify the Presentation of Information

Definition: Present I-O concepts, topics, research methods, and findings in a manner that can easily be understood by any audience.

Value of I-O psychology. Effectively communicate the value of I-O psychology, or any of the specialized topics within the field (e.g., selection, training).

Research. Translate social science research in a way that communicates the methodological rigor, appropriateness, and importance in a way that any audience can appreciate.

Results. Ensure written, verbal, and/or visual presentation of organizational research findings are easily understood.

Exemplary Quotes:

I’ll give an example. I used to work with somebody who had a PhD in Economics, and she did extremely complicated work underneath the hood, and when she talked to executives, it was “Green means Go, Red means No Go, Yellow means Proceed with Caution,” and I’m sitting there going, you worked for weeks on the algorithm and you give them a one-pager that says, “Stoplight?” and she goes, “yes, if they want more information, I’ve got it. I’ll make it available for them. But all they want to know is, ‘what’s the decision here?’”

People can relate to pictures very easily… your audience should be able to grasp what you’re talking about in 3 seconds or less… so particularly for politically sensitive topics, where people are highly motivated to misinterpret what you’re saying, using a compelling diagnostic that’s visual in nature, kind of makes it inarguable.

It’s really about providing stories, and analogies, and examples, so in some cases I even use sports analogies for the work I do with teams. Being able to say, here’s the data, and here’s an example of what we saw in a work setting, and here’s an example of what we learned from a sports setting, and for other people that resonates with them enough that they’re able to buy into the research.

Become a pro with analogies and metaphors. This skill may come more easily to some, but it is a must when responding to questions on the fly.

5. Maintain an SME Mindset

Definition: Realize that your thorough education and deep understanding of I-O psychology makes you a Subject Matter Expert

Creative. I-O applications Adopt an open-minded approach to the translation of I-O psychology in practice (e.g., be flexible, adaptive). Tailor content to your audience’s situation or level of expertise.

Self-efficacy. Uphold a belief in your abilities as an I-O expert and as an effective translator.

Exemplary Quotes:

Trust yourself. This isn't article group or your orals. When someone asks you a question, it is typically because they don't know or don't understand. They are not trying to trip you up or suggest you aren't competent. Remember, you are the SME!

Have the confidence to get creative with what you learned in graduate school so that you can do things aligned to the goals of your organization in a way that best fits the particular project you’re working on. Don’t think each process you learned in graduate school only has one application.

Realize that you are an expert and have a very specialized/technical knowledge set. For the last 4+ years you have been surrounded by other experts in the field of I-O psychology. That may NOT be true of the environment you are about to find yourself in.


Although not every I-O professional mentioned every subtheme, the interviewees were remarkably consistent in providing practical advice that aligned with our two primary themes: Preparing for Your Translation Experience and Translating I-O Psychology in the Field. There was one exception, however. Conflicting responses were provided regarding the use of the term “industrial-organizational psychology” in the field. Two respondents described specifically and purposefully beginning translation experiences by saying the full title to build awareness for our field.

Begin with “ I am an industrial-organizational psychologist.” Say the full 10-syllable job title, if for no other reason than branding purposes.

I always use the full term “industrial-organizational psychology” and then define it. I used to not even say it because of the confusion and blank stares. But, I now believe it's worth it not only to define myself accurately but also to spread the word about who we are and what we do to people outside of our field.

Conversely, a few other respondents specifically advised us not to use the full term when communicating I-O to an unfamiliar audience. Here is their rationale:

In my organization, we are part of HR so I usually don't mention I-O psychology by name but rather describe the functions we perform for my agency. For example, I describe that we are the technical wing in HR and that we focus on providing and improving tools or processes to attract, select, retain, evaluate, and motivate employees. With friends or family, I describe it as nerdy HR (I know that's not great, but it's the truth...) and then also try to focus more on functions I perform and the offerings we have for clients.

There are some good reasons, at least for me personally, to not use it. ” I-O” doesn’t have any meaning, at least by itself. Is that input/output? And if you say "well, that means industrial-organizational psychology" I think that for a lot of people, by the time you’ve gotten through “industrial-organizational” they’ve lost interest. So I call myself an organizational psychologist. Some people describe themselves as a work psychologist. I like organizational psychologist, because … It’s an easier term to get out.

This divergence is notable because most of the other advice we received was consistent across respondents. So, TIP readership and SIOP community members, we are curious. Do you describe yourself as an industrial-organizational psychologist, or do you use other terminology?


Do you use the full term "Industrial-Organizational Psychologist" when describing yourself to others?

See results 

image polls


image polls



In this article we consolidated best-practice recommendations from I-Os working in the field. In our next article, Overcoming Critics of Social Science Research Methods, we will relay more practical advice obtained from I-O professionals. We would like to thank all our interviewees and survey respondents for taking the time to give us their tips and advice. A special thank you to the participants who provided written and video responses for our column (some of whom requested to remain anonymous). Last, but certainly not least, we would like to thank the TIP readership for your support!


Hill, C. E., Knox, S., Thompson, B. J., Williams, E. N., Hess, S. A., & Ladany, N. (2005). Consensual qualitative research: An update. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 196.

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