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The Problem With Pop Psychology In The Workplace

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The Problem With Pop Psych. In The Workplace

More and more writers are publishing books on psychology for the general public. These books (and also videos and tapes) help authors and psychologists get their theories and ideas out to a broad public, hence the term "pop(ular) psychology". The good news is that people unschooled in psychology can learn from these kinds of books even if they unlikely to read psychology textbooks or professional journals . The bad news is that people unschooled in psychology can learn from these kinds of books even if they are unlikely to read psychology textbooks or professional journals.

Sounds nonsensical? Before you apply what you have learned from pop psych. books to your workplace make sure you read the rest of this article.

The Nature of Pop Psychology.

Over the last decade or so we have seen an increase in interest in understanding ourselves and those around us, and with that increase, there has been an increase in the number of "psychology" books published for laypeople. If you browse the psychology section in any book store you will find books on multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, personality typologies (such as the MBTI and the Enneagram), etc. Most of the available material is written by psychologists, adding at least a veneer of respectibility. After all, many people are impressed with a book written by a P.hD.

Before you jump into using the concepts you may read about, or hire a consultant or trainer to do so, you should know that a single book or even a series of books from one author is not able to give you the "whole picture". There are several reasons for this. First, any author is going to be biased in favor of his or her ideas (if they thought they were writing junk, they probably wouldn't be writing). Second, for marketing reasons, ideas presented in a single book by a single author tend to be "watered down" so they are easier to understand by people without specialized education. Third, the ideas presented are often isolated from events in the history of psychology, and are not likely to be balanced with evidence that refutes the author's contentions.

It isn't so much that the ideas are wrong (although they might be). They may represent just part of the truth, or part of our understanding at the time. This isn't done maliciously. It reflects the nature of the publishing industry AND the nature of how we research psychology.

Psychology, like any science, evolves constantly. In a sense the "truth" is never found, since research almost always generates evidence in favour of a particular set of ideas AND evidence that contradicts that set of ideas. A person doing psychology research tends to want to publish in what are called peer-reviewed professional journals, where their article is critiqued and assessed prior to publication. If the methods used in the research are faulty, then the article should never get published. After many experiments are done over time, ideas are either reinforced or cast aside as others replace them.

Where Does The Problem Lie With Popular Psychology?

What we often end up with is the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Managers, staff, and particularly trainers and consultants latch on to a particular psychological perspective based on the findings of one author or one or two books. Having found the "way" they try to implement things like diversity in the workplace based on psychological styles (see the November issue of the PSM Newsletter), without truly understanding the limitations of the approach. Or they read the Enneagram, another typing tool and do the same. Sometimes these approaches work. Sometimes they have no effect, and sometimes they can be negative. In all cases there is an investment of time and resources. But since people applying pop psych. don't have a really complete picture of the ideas they are applying, it really becomes a crap shoot. For example, most users of personality typing tools are not aware that there are probably hundreds of learning styles defined in the literature. How can they make intelligent decisions without having that understanding? What tests are best? What are the differences between different ones? Which is most likely to work with a given organization for a specific purpose? 

None of these questions can be answered based on the reading of a single book. One has to read the actual research, some of which may go back decades, or take the risk that the lack of a "complete picture" will result in failure.

So, in a sense, the use of pop psych. ideas encourages "faddism" in management and in organizations. The "newest thing" is tried, based on a popular book. Often it fails, but those "trying" will never know why. They discard the old fad and move to a new one, which again is based on an inadequate understanding of the background and issues.

'Round and 'round we go.

Some Specific Suggestions:

1. Just because "pop psych" material may be biased, and in some cases partly incorrect or inaccurate doesn't mean you should stop reading. What it does mean is that you need to apply a good measure of critical thinking while you read. Be aware that you have an incomplete picture, and that you may not be able to easily create the full picture unless you have months to research.

2. One of the scarier part of the "pop psych" trend is that many trainers and consultants believe that on the strength of reading a book or two, they can help you apply the concepts to your workplace. Here's an example. There are many assertiveness training people running around. Unfortunately, while assertive behaviour has it's pluses, it also has limitations when applied to specific situations-- sometimes it makes discussion worse. Many trainers, having read only one or two pop psych. books on the subject won't have a complete picture and may teach your staff the wrong things through ignorance. So, explore the background, qualifications and source material any consultant uses. If they tend to quote or use only a limited range of sources, that may be a red flag.

3. Always remember that the pop psych author, the publisher, and consultants and trainers have a vested interest not only in informing but entertaining, and above all, making a profit. Publishers in pop psych. don't publish for fun...they want you to read, be convinced and purchase the next book on the subject.

4. If you are really interested in the study of psychology, you might want to look at alternate sources of information. One thing you can do is purchase a few basic psychology textbooks, often used in introductory psychology courses. In most cities, these can be purchased from used book stores at a tiny fraction of the original cost. Textbooks tend to be less entertaining to read but at least try to balance out different perspectives.

5. Don't assume that a pop psych book is "right" just because the author has a doctorate in psychology or because it has been printed. Always keep in mind point #3 above. It's a business.

6. As a person in the workplace, you may not have the time or background to assess what you might read. That's fine if you read pop psych. material for fun (and a bit of information). It isn't so good if you want to apply the ideas to your workplace. Consider getting alternate opinions before you jump in to application. University faculty are great resources, and can sometimes be involved at low or no cost. A few phone calls to the local university psychology department may be very useful in getting a bit more balance.

7. Above all, consider the purchase and application of training or pop psych like you would the purchase of a personal vehicle. You probably aren't going to spend $27,000 on a vehicle without at least finding out what other people (not the car company) are saying about the vehicle. Why would you invest considerable time, energy and money in purchasing or applying pop psych. principles in the workplace without finding out what others are saying?

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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