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Organizational Psychology – Uncovering Causality

Answers the Question

How do you remove problems to the validity of interpretations of cause and effect in organizational research?

How it Began

Research and statistics play a large role in the studies of organizational psychology. There are many methods of research and statistics used to determine information and answers to the many questions posed by organizational psychologists. When collecting data, researchers must be aware of several issues that can affect the validity of their research. Generalizing information across differing organizations can commonly lead to mistakes. Research methods vary and should be used to suit the questions at hand.

cause and effect

Research and statistics are a key component in organizational psychology, and they are used to determine and analyze data. These tools are used to greatly increase the effectiveness and success of an organization.  Since inferring causal relationships is one of the central tasks of science, it is a topic that has been heavily debated in the use of organizational development consultancy.

Cause and effect is one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts in science and is often misused in an attempt to add legitimacy to research.   The basic principle of causality is determining whether the results and trends observed are actually caused by the intervention or whether some other factor may underlie the process.

Business schools perpetuate the myth that the outcomes of changes in organizations can be managed using models that are rooted in the scientific-rational mode of enquiry. In essence, such models assume that all important variables that affect an outcome (i.e. causes) are known and that the relationship between these variables and the outcomes (i.e. effects) can be represented accurately by simple models. This is the nature of explanation in the hard sciences such as physics and is pretty much the official line adopted by mainstream management research and teaching

The first thing to remember with causality, especially in the non-physical sciences, is that it is impossible to establish complete causality.

Reliability and validity are extremely difficult to achieve in organisation studies. Unlike chemical and biological processes that can be controlled within laboratories, studying humans has the added complication that the humans can figure out they are being studied and shift results.

But even if a strong case can be made for reliability and validity, three conditions must be satisfied to demonstrate cause and effect (essentially to strengthen the case for it). These conditions are all necessary but no one of them is sufficient:

  • The cause has to occur in time before the effect.
  • Changes in the cause has to create a corresponding change in the effect.
  • No other explanation for the relationship can be present.

Key Terminology

Causality – Causality refers to the relationship between events where one set of events (the effects) is a direct consequence of another set of events (the causes).

Causal inference – the process by which one can use data to make claims about causal relationships.

Reliability – the study is replicable and can be conducted repeatedly in the same manner as before, preferably by other people to reduce bias.

Validity – the study is actually measuring what it is assuming it is measuring

In Brief

Cause and effect means establishing that one variable has caused a change in the other variable for example has an increase in stress levels caused employee turnover. It is important to establish cause and effect, so that an undesirable effect can be changed or eliminated i.e. reducing employee turnover by decreasing levels of stress.

To show that an outcome was directly caused by an intervention, there are three criteria we need to consider:

  1. Time-order effect: The intervention must precede the outcome. The introduction of the OD intervention occurred before the changes in the measured outcome occurred.
  2. Strength of association: There is a correlation between the desired outcome and the intervention. For instance, there should be trend between those who participated in the intervention, and the corresponding increase in a measured outcome.
  3. Exclusion of alternate explanations: There should be no other major explanation attributed to the outcome except for that of your intervention. For example, if significant change in work plans also took place during that period, which subsequently impacted the measured outcome, the causality of the OD intervention on the outcome could be cast in doubt.

Examples of Methods of Research

Simple observation, the most basic of research strategies, involves observing and systematically recording behaviour.  The purpose of observational studies in the Organization Development Diagnostic Phase is to produce data that demonstrates a strong cases for causation is obviously to create effective solutions to real problems. In the evaluation phase the Organization Development consultant will seek to provide data to demonstrate the changes that the intervention has delivered.

Archival data represent any form of data or records that are compiled for purposes that are independent of the research being conducted. By far the most widely used form of data collection in organizational diagnostic intervention is survey research. Survey research simply involves asking participants to report about their attitudes and/or behaviours, either in writing or verbally.

If the data is problematic, the treatment will be ineffective and sometimes harmful.

However, organizations have come to a stark conclusion that understanding the diverse dynamics of organization, group and individual behaviour in the work place is extremely important financially. Employees understanding of their role in a company and their particular enthusiasm and loyalty play pivotal roles. Many companies realize that keeping employees motivated and engaged is a financially sound business practice. High turnover of skilled employees is not a desired effect organizations are looking for. Organizational psychology and the effective employment of causality research design can be and are of tremendous benefit to organizations that realize the importance of the connection between people and performance.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Research methodology and statistical analysis are crucial to the practice of organizational development. Research methodology and statistical analysis may be used to evaluate some intervention designed to enhance organizational effectiveness.  To date, there are people who still wonder if OD efforts are indeed effective in improving organisational performance. This is why there is a need to show how well OD interventions are working — and having a sound evaluation strategy is key to doing so.

Demonstrating causality can be challenging in organisations given its dynamism and the possible emergence of new factors— internal and external that can have an influence on the desired outcome. This is why it is important to clearly establish the leader’s expectations during the contracting meeting — the face-to-face meeting with the leader, where you get to ask probing questions to better understand his/her expectations on the desired outcome, as well as establish the expectation that the intervention can have a direct influence on the desired outcome. Securing agreement on these expectations can go a long way in ensuring that our efforts in outcome evaluation will be accepted by our leader. But even when agreement is secured, it is advisable that we continually check in with our leader throughout the duration of the intervention implementation to make sure that what we are doing is still on the right path.


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