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Book Forum: Consulting Psychology   |    
The California School of Organizational Studies Handbook of Organizational Consulting Psychology: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory, Skills, and Techniques
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:774-a-775. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.4.774-a
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Bronx, N.Y.

Edited by Rodney L. Lowman. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2002, 836 pp., $100.00.

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If psychology is the study of human behavior, then human behavior in organizations and the organization’s effect on behavior represent core topics. Even the seminal psychologist of the individual patient, Sigmund Freud, recognized the unique phenomena of group dynamics. Yet, psychologists typically intervene at the level of the individual or, at most, with families and small groups. Over the course of an entire career, therapists may treat a total of 200 to 300 patients, all the while yearning for a wider impact. What if each of our interventions influenced an entire organization composed of thousands of individuals?

I read Rodney Lowman’s comprehensive Handbook of Organizational Consulting Psychology nurturing just such a fantasy. Here were psychologists whose interventions transformed major Fortune 500 corporations. Not only did they increase the company’s bottom line, they also saved or created jobs for countless people. (In my fantasy, the exorbitant fees they charge are hardly noticed on the company’s balance sheet, in contrast to my patients, who can barely afford my modest fee for psychotherapy.) Most importantly, organizational psychologists gain leverage because they focus on people’s work lives—a domain too often overlooked by the typical clinician who might consider work "conflict-free."

Although this handbook is not likely to turn me from clinician into organizational consulting psychologist, it certainly heightened my appreciation for the sophisticated and diverse interventions that are routinely applied in this field. Divided into eight parts and 31 chapters written by eminent practitioners and scholars, the handbook covers major theories, individual and organizational levels of application, consulting techniques, measurement approaches, and professional practice issues, including ethics and training. I was particularly engaged by the case histories, especially one chapter written by Harry Levinson, who makes organizational interventions based on a psychoanalytic understanding of the leaders’ strengths and weaknesses. In one case, the chief executive officer had to prepare the company for a change in leadership; in another, the company had to change focus due to a downturn in the business environment; in yet another, a passive chief executive officer was having a deleterious effect on the entire company. In these case histories, as with psychotherapy, Levinson became the object of transference and had to finesse the issue of whether to "support" the company leadership or analyze the weaknesses. As in psychotherapy, the consultant had to prepare the organization for the disappointment, loss, and anxiety associated with termination. Although this is the workplace, issues regarding attachment, dependency, intimacy, and power (also sex) are pervasive. There are also conflicts of interest, confidentiality concerns, and boundary issues (i.e., who is the identified client?).

Some chapters are less narrative and more scientific, describing quantitative approaches to the analysis of business organizations. Many authors ground their interventions in elaborate systems theory; others base them on more specialized knowledge. Some authors focus on the qualities of the individual leader or how human resource departments can evaluate the best candidates during recruitment. Others analyze tables of organization and quality improvement approaches. This is a diverse field with the same kinds of theoretical and applied divisions that we find in other areas of psychology.

Lowman has collected an excellent compendium with almost no redundancies, even though chapters on related topics are written by different authors. I was especially interested that most authors, who are on the faculty at business schools rather than in medical schools or schools of arts and sciences, do not assume the role of helping professional. They have invented and defined a field of organizational consulting psychology that parallels, but does not fundamentally resemble, that of clinical psychology. Lowman’s handbook is a good overview and textbook.




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