Your Guide to Organizational Leadership Degrees with a Focus in Social and Organizational Psychology

Written by Scott Wilson

social and organizational psychology

One of the biggest revolutions in the science of leadership in recent decades has been the application of firm and consistent psychological principles to the concept. Leaders for generations have had some innate understanding of both individual and group psychology. They were able to develop a feel for what to say and how to say it to spark imaginations and motivate people toward great ends.

But up until the 20th century, the psychological underpinnings of leadership were a hit-or-miss affair. Some leaders chanced into the right techniques and succeeded; others whiffed it and failed.

Just like any other kind of human behavior, though, the needs and motivations of individuals in social groups and large organizations can be studied and understood through common psychological principles. And the lessons of those studies can be distilled into proven techniques for leading and inspiring those groups.

That’s what being skilled at social and organizational psychology brings you as a leader. And specialized degree and certificate programs in the field offer you a clear advantage in developing those skills.

Social and Organizational Psychology Offer a Professional Foundation for Modern Leaders

group sessionOrganizational psychology is often also called industrial-organizational psychology, with the roots of the field reaching back to the start of the industrial age. When the mechanization and systemization of jobs emerged in the early 19th century, it sent shockwaves through both society and the workplace.

That drew the attention of the burgeoning field of psychology, which was becoming broader and more professional at just about the same time. The societal ills that came with industrialization, with the decline of agrarian social structures and the growth of urban slums, disease, and unhappiness, was something that warranted investigation and demanded solutions.

How One Couple Changed the Face of Industrial and Organizational Psychology

industrial psychologyThe field of American industrial and organizational psychology might have languished for decades but for the chance meeting of a Boston bricklayer and a California debutante en route to a European tour in 1903.

Frank Gilbreth wasn’t just any old bricklayer. He had formed his own construction business using superior building techniques he had developed through motion efficiency studies, and was in demand throughout the Northeast.

And Lillian Moller wasn’t just any debutante. She was a UC Berkeley graduate studying for a PhD in Psychology.

After a whirlwind courtship, the newly married Gilbreths put their analytical and psychological talents together and completely shifted the picture of industrial management and leadership.

While the scientific management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor were all the rage at the time, the Gilbreths realized they left out some of the most important factors in a workplace: the human ones.

Combining time and motion analysis with psychological theory, they began to recommend job modifications that changed the machines to suit the workers to promote efficiency. Their ideas remain in force even today.

They also applied their ideas at home — with a booming set of careers and twelve children, efficiency was just as key domestically as it is professionally. Today, the Gilbreths may be best remembered outside the field of organizational psychology for their family life, chronicled in the hit book and movies Cheaper by the Dozen.

At the same time, workplaces themselves were revealed as unique environments where previously undiscovered cultural forces were in play. Creating an effective, efficient workplace, leaders discovered, required more than just installing the right machinery. Finding the right techniques to manage the workforce were equally crucial.

The fruits of the psychological studies on individual and group behavior, and the impacts of organized jobs have grown over the years to emerge today as well-documented, scientific principles of management and leadership. Understanding those foundation is a sure way to juice up your own leadership performance in any organization.

What Kind of Skills Can You Learn in Social and Organizational Psychology Studies?

men shaking handsMost leaders, even those who have specialized in social and organizational psychology, are not qualified and licensed professional psychologists. But pretty much every leader has to play psychologist every day, reading cues and interpreting behaviors with their team. They have to understand their staff through psychological principles and find ways to use their understanding to create excitement, motivation, and learning opportunities.

All of that takes pretty much the same skills that psychologists use on a day-to-day basis. Those include:

If it all seems fairly obvious, that’s true… leaders naturally engage in all these processes whether they have formal training in them or not. But adding that training to your other leadership skills, like strategic planning, performance management, and communication, offers you a more effective path to leadership.

Finding the Right Degree or Certificate Program To Improve Your Organizational Psychology Skills for Leadership

never give upGetting the training you need in social and organizational psychology comes down to getting the right degree. Psychology is a famously academic field, and skills in this area are earned through hours in the classroom and practical observation and experience.

But that creates an issue for leaders in other fields who are looking to improve their leadership skills rather than their psychology skills. Most of the degrees you will turn up in a search for organizational and social psychology will be psych programs aimed at professional psychologists.

In terms of professional programs for non-psychologists, almost all the options come only at the graduate level of study. So Master of Arts/Sciences in Organizational Leadership (MAOL/MSOL) degrees are usually the go-to option for senior leaders working on upping their social psychology game.

Every MAOL/MSOL will deal with social and organizational psychology to some extent, but few offer it as a sort of specialization. If you are really interested in focusing on the psychological science behind leadership skills, you’ll probably be looking at degrees such as:

You can even find MBA (Master of Business Administration) degrees with a Business Psychology Specialization that may offer the right social and organizational psychology skills for your needs.

Another way to ensure you are getting a psychology-focused OL degree is to look for those that are offered by schools of psychology. While such degrees may come with the same basic MAOL/MSOL title as any other Organizational Leadership program, they are typically taught by professional psychologists and stacked with a more psych-heavy curriculum.

And since psychology is a field that has standardized on doctoral programs as the minimum educational requirement for licensure, you will also find PhD in Psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs that offer specializations in leadership, organizational, or social psychology. It’s rare for these to be useful for leaders in most fields, since they are aimed at the practice of psychology in these fields themselves. But psychology organizations need leadership too! So you might find in some circumstances that a PsyD in Leadership Psychology develops just the right practical skills for your leadership career path.

Certificates are other popular options for getting graduate or post-graduate training in social and organizational psychology. These programs are shorter and less expensive than full degrees, lasting only a few months and consisting of only a few classes. But they can give you a strong shot of only the essential information you need if you already have a good range of broad-spectrum leadership experience.

You can find them aimed at a variety of different aspects of organizational psychology, with titles like:

These options can really allow you to focus in on the aspects of social and organizational psychology that interest you, while leaving out the other elements of a typical degree.

Online Social and Organizational Psychology Studies Making Education Easy

using a laptop for online schoolPursuing advanced studies like social and organizational psychology is usually something that happens at more advanced stages of your career. That can make it tough to line up your personal and professional obligations with the rigorous demands of traditional college attendance.

Fortunately, an explosion in excellent online degree and certificate programs in this field makes it much easier to get the training you need without upsetting your other plans.

The advantages of online programs start off with the fact that you can attend any of them from anywhere. That opens up a wealth of options, so you can find the best fit for your goals even if it’s located halfway across the country. You don’t have to uproot your family and move or take a hiatus from work to make it happen.

And because all those family and work obligations make it hard to align with a traditional campus classroom schedule, you’ll be relieved to find out that online options also typically come with flexible class times, too. You can catch up on a lecture stream over the breakfast table in the morning, finish up your homework at lunch hour, and check in with fellow students on a class project through a group chat while you are chilling in the school parking lot waiting for your kids to emerge at the end of the day.

A Blend of Theoretical and Practical Studies Characterize Leadership Coursework in Social and Organizational Psychology

Finding the right degree program to unlock your social and organizational psych skills means finding a unique blend of the theoretical and the practical applications of psychology in leadership. That means a unique set of courses, overlapping but not duplicated in either dedicated I-O psychology programs or in conventional organizational leadership degrees.

Those courses include classes like:

The Psychological Science of Leadership

You will usually start these programs off with a broad exploration of the history and experimental evidence behind leadership psychology. This will ground you in the current state of leadership science, with an explanation of principles like behavior shaping, the psychology of participations, self-organizing systems, encouraging organizational creativity, and managing change leadership practices.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

The field of emotional intelligence offers deeper paths to interpersonal connection and reading individuals for leaders who can master it. This coursework explores the concept of emotional and social intelligence and offers techniques that can increase your own EI quotient, as well as methods to help subordinates with their own.

Foundations of Behavior and Motivation

The roots of social psychology are found in the individuals that make up that society. So you’ll explore the science behind both individual and group behavior and motivations in these courses. In particular, you’ll look at the evidence behind workplace behaviors, and how social processes shape how teams bond and how groups form for specific purposes to get things done.

Leadership Ethics

The philosophy of ethics is important to all leadership degree programs. In these specializations, though, you’ll go beyond philosophy to look at the role of psychology and group behaviors with respect to shared ethics standards. The courses explore ethical decision-making and how leaders can cultivate behavioral standards at work that lead to more just and fair organizations.

Of course, any branch of psychology today offers a deep well of information to draw on. So you’ll also have the option to further specialize your degree through an assortment of elective classes. These will vary from school to school, and will often depend on the expertise and research projects of the professors who teach them. But you can find options such as classes in:

The same variety of interests and research efforts that contribute to those elective assortments can also lead to entirely original academic experiences from program to program. At the graduate level, students frequently participate in original research designed either by themselves or as a part of their instructor’s long-term projects. Contributing to the field of organizational psychology is a sure way to set yourself up for some interesting and lucrative job interviews.

At this level, you’ll usually also get the opportunity to intern at major organizations or with psychologists who specialize in I-O practice. You’ll get a valuable first-hand perspective, learning from pros who study and use the techniques of the field every day.

Finally, you’ll work on your own original ideas as part of a thesis paper or capstone project. Like other master’s-level research, this genuinely sets you apart from other candidates competing for leadership positions, and allows you to develop your own thoughts on the subject more fully.

Whatever direction your studies take you, there’s no way to go wrong as a leader with a deeper, clearer understanding of the underlying psychology behind social and group behavior.