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Abstract

In his essay, Bal (2020) calls for the“PWexit”–that is, work and organizational psychologists should stop studying employee performance and well-being. The essay is one ofseveral recent papers written by "critical organizationalscholars" that have appeared in work and organizationalpsychology journals (see also Bal & Dóci, 2018; Mumby, 2019). These papers have in common that they, in anostensibly provocative manner, lament the supposedly miserable state of science and practice in the field and advocate change based on their critical ideas and paradigms. In this commentary, we argue that the strategies employed by critical organizational scholars have several similarities with those of political populists (Rodrik, 2018). To facilitate a critical discourse on "critical organizationalscholarship," the first goal of this commentary is to describe typical strategies used to supportpopulist science. Furthermore, we would like to challenge several, in ourview problematic, ideas advanced in the PWexit essay by Bal (2020). In particular, we regard it as cynical andcontrary to scientific and professional values to suggest tha thigh levels of burnout and depression are necessary to impact changes in workplaces and society. Accordingly, the second goal of this commentary is to urge caution regarding the provocations, simplistic arguments, and prescriptive recommendations of populist scientists.
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Dr. Ulrich Leicht-Deobald
Universität St.Gallen
Institut für Wirtschaftsethik
Girtannerstrasse 8
9010 St.Gallen
Switzerland
ulrich.leicht-deobald@unisg.ch
https://doi.org/10.1026/0932-4089/a000335
Beware of Populist Science!A Commentary
on Bal (2020)
Hannes Zacher1and Cort W. Rudolph2
1Institute of Psychology, Leipzig University
2Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, USA
In his essay, Bal (2020) calls for the PWexit”–that is,
work and organizational psychologists should stop studying
employee performance and well-being. The essay is one of
several recent papers written by critical organizational
scholarsthat have appeared in work and organizational
psychology journals (see also Bal & Dóci, 2018; Mumby,
2019). These papers have in common that they, in an
ostensibly provocative manner, lament the supposedly
miserable state of science and practice in the field and
advocate change based on their critical ideas and para-
digms. In this commentary, we argue that the strategies
employed by critical organizational scholars have several
similarities with those of political populists (Rodrik, 2018).
To facilitate a critical discourse on critical organizational
scholarship,the first goal of this commentary is to
describe typical strategies used to support populist science.
Furthermore, we would like to challenge several, in our
view problematic, ideas advanced in the PWexit essay by
Bal (2020). In particular, we regard it as cynical and
contrary to scientific and professional values to suggest that
high levels of burnout and depression are necessary to
impact changes in workplaces and society. Accordingly, the
second goal of this commentary is to urge caution regard-
ing the provocations, simplistic arguments, and prescriptive
recommendations of populist scientists.
Strategies Used in Populist Science
The essay by Bal (2020) illustrates four strategies that are
typically used by populist scientists and self-proclaimed
critical organizational scholars to advance their agendas. In
our view, the use of these strategies is problematic because
science is about seeking the truth and not about advancing
political agendas, and because we believe that researchers
should be completely free to study any interesting and
important phenomena, including performance and well-
being.
Populist scientists Speak for All of Usand
Distinguish Between Usand Them
Similar to political populists, populist scientists write as if
they speak for all of us,for instance, for all researchers in
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the large and heterogeneous field of work and organizational
psychology (and related disciplines, such as management).
They often refer to we and us in a general sense (i. e., not to
the author team) instead of Ito make their points. For
instance, Bal (2020) writes: Performance and well-being
are important, but we are currently obsessed with it, and
therefore we have developed a tunnel vision , and we
have stopped to be critical of our own concepts(italics
added). As another example, Bal (2020) writes: “… We do
not think about the state of high well-being and its
(philosophical) implications(italics added). The question
is, who is we here? We know many work and organiza-
tional psychologists who are not obsessedwith per-
formance and well-being, who are very critical of their
own and otherswork, and who carefully consider the
implications of their research assumptions and findings.
Also, there are several studies that do consider various
implications of high and low employee well-being (as well
as switches between these states), for instance, for
creativity and work engagement (e. g., Bled ow, Schmitt,
Frese, & Kühnel, 2011; Lam, Spreitzer, & Fritz, 2014).
Populist scientists also typically distinguish between
their own criticalin-group and other researchers label-
led as mainstream (Zacher, 2019). For example, Bal
(2020) suggests that: The most fundamental problem is
the lack of critical thinking towards these concepts, as
they are merely taken for granted in research. However,
we hardly ever discuss what the effects are of our
narrow focus on performance and well-being.Given that
critical thinking is one of the hallmarks of science and that
many colleagues do think critically about the concepts
they study, we question whether drawing an artificial
divide between criticaland uncriticalwork and
organizational psychologists is helpful in current times
when political populists and their followers increasingly
question the relevance of science and scientific findings.
Populist Scientists Generalize, Review
Selectively, and Dramatize
Another set of strategies used by populist scientists
includes making sweeping generalizations, selectively
reviewing and describing the literature, and using dra-
matic language to make their points. For instance, Bal
(2020) writes that “… performance and well-being [are]
the only outcomes relevant to our research any concept
in the field aims to explain variance in performance
(italics added). We contend that these generalizations are
not true, as there are many studies on other important
psychological constructs (e. g., research on empathy,
prosocial behavior, voice, teamwork, incivility, and inten-
tional forgetting in organizations, to name but a few). A
recent study has exposed the generalizing strategy of
populist scientists by showing that research trends in
leading work and organizational psychology journals are
not consistent with the neoliberal fantasiesof critical
organizational scholars(Anseel, Van Lysebetten, Van Es,
& Rosseel, 2018). Other researchers have also argued that
work and organizational psychology is not doomedby
neoliberalism (Guest & Grote, 2018).
At the same time, it is not overly surprising that work
and organizational psychologists often study employee
well-being and performance, given that psychological
science is concerned with describing, understanding, and
potentially changing the experience and behavior of
individuals. Well-being refers to a broad range of individ-
ual, hedonic, or eudaimonic experiences and certainly
not just positive affect or happiness (for a detailed review,
see Sonnentag, 2015). Performance is defined as observ-
able and scalable behavior that contributes to the goals of
an organization (Campbell, McCloy, Oppler, & Sager,
1993). Contrary to Bals (2020) suggestion, performance
defined as such certainly has an intrinsic meaningto
employees and organizations. We believe that few work
and organizational psychologist would simply, as Bal
(2020) notes, “… measure in-role performance of bankers
and perceive it as something inherently good, when at the
same time their performance may include offshoring
profits to tax havens.In fact, research in work and
organizational psychology has acknowledged that there
can be counterproductive work behavior that employees
show with the intention of benefiting the organization
(Vardi & Wiener, 1996). Similarly, research on goal setting
has already shown that, as noted by Bal (2020), “… a
myopic focus on performance…” can, but not always does,
have “… a range of perverse effects(e. g., Keith, 2018;
Welsh & Ordóñez, 2014). Importantly, most if not all
organizations have multiple goals, with businesses typi-
cally focusing on profitability but also on social and
environmental responsibility (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012).
We further maintain that, in terms of reviewing and
describing the literature in work and organizational
psychology, Bals (2020) essay could have painted a more
balanced and differentiated picture. For example, Bal
(2020) cites a meta-analysis on the relationship between
organizational citizenship behavior and counterproduc-
tive work behavior (Dalal, 2005) to justify the following
statement: It has been argued widely that the sole
purpose of individuals in the workplace is to enhance
performance of organizations (see, e. g., Dalal, 2005).
However, Dalal (2005) does not make this argument and
the meta-analysis is concerned with a completely differ-
ent research question. Only the very first sentence in the
article by Dalal (2005) might hint at this notion: Job
performance is so important to industrialorganizational
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(I/O) psychology that it is often simply referred to as the
criterion’” (p. 1241).
Bal (2020) further suggests that “… our way of con-
ceptualizing performance does not promote collaboration
but is always aimed at competing with each other, and to
be the best performance is by definition comparative
(italics added). A literature search readily reveals several
studies that examined within-person trajectories of job
performance and potential predictors (e. g., personality
characteristics) of intraindividual changes over time (e. g.,
Alessandri, Truxillo, Tisak, Fagnani, & Borgogni, 2019;
Thoresen, Bradley, Bliese, & Thoresen, 2004). Bal (2020)
also suggests that “… the more problematic and contested
aspects in the workplace, such as power and exploitation,
are usually neglected.By contrast, we contend that many
researchers in work and organizational psychology have
researched such topics, including effects of power differ-
ences on workplace aggression (Lapierre, Spector, & Leck,
2005), the nature and prevalence of decent work across
multiple countries (Duffy, Blustein, Allan, Diemer, &
Cinamon, 2020), and links between organizational de-
mocracy and well-being (Weber, Unterrainer, & Höge,
2019). Overall, we argue that contrary to what Bal
(2020) suggests work and organizational psychologists
already study many topics associated with “… greater
social cohesion (in the workplace and beyond), protection
of people in- and outside organizations, social belonging,
vibrant and inclusive communities, and so on.
Populist scientists often label their own essays as provoca-
tive without making clear whether they want to be taken
seriously or not (see also Mumby, 2019). The use of overly
dramatic language and simplified examples certainly makes
it difficult to do so. For example, we do not understand what
is wrong with “… the utopia where organizations function
well, and where people are highly performing and feeling
healthy, happy, and vigorous …” (Bal, 2020). Every day,
thousands of work and organizational psychologists around
the globe work toward this aim and make important
contributions to other people, organizations, animals, and
the planet and they are not responsible for Bals (2020)
metaphorical “… child working in a tin mine.
Unlike what Bal (2020) suggests, we believe that only very
few work and organizational psychologists work for organ-
izations that have unethical goals and in which “… our planet,
animals, and people are sacrificed for the pursuit of profit
and thus organizational performance.The language used
by critical organizational scholars at times even reminds us
of the language used by the MarxistLeninist and socialist
party regimes of the former Soviet Union and German
Democratic Republic (see also Mumby, 2019). For instance,
Bal (2020) writes, “… capitalism can only exist by eternal
economic growth which makes anything in the world
instrumental to it ,”“well-being has been integrated in
the capitalist neoliberal performance paradigm ,and he
laments “… our global neo-colonial system …” and the “…
hegemonic functionalistpositivist tradition of WOP [work
and organizational psychology].It remains largely unclear,
however, which alternative political and economic system
critical organizational scholars would prefer (Zacher, 2019).
Populist Scientists Prescribe What
Researchers Should (or Should Not) Do
We believe that researchers should be free to study
whatever topic seems interesting and important to them,
including performance and well-being. By contrast, a
strategy used by populist scientists is to prescribe what
researchers should, or should not, do (e. g., “… work and
organizational psychology needs to move beyond meas-
uring performance and well-being; Bal, 2020). At the
same time, reading Bals (2020) essay, we cannot avoid
noting some degree of hypocrisy, as some of the most
highly cited papers by Bal focus on explaining employee
performance (Bakker & Bal, 2010; Bal, 2010) as well as
employee engagement and organizational commitment
(Bal, Kooij, & De Jong, 2013), which are indicators of
occupational well-being. Moreover, even Bal and collea-
guesmost recent papers aim to predict performance
(Kooij, Nijssen, Bal, & van der Kruijssen, 2020) and well-
being (Rodrigues, Cunha, Castanheira, Bal, & Jansen,
2020). Thus, to us, the question that must be raised is why
should other researchers, including especially early career
researchers, follow the recommendations of populist
scientists and study alternative research topics that are
potentially less interesting and impactful than research on
performance and well-being. This question seems espe-
cially relevant, given that populist scientists so often do
not follow their own advice in this regard.
Bal (2020) further proposes that “… it is needed to stop
letting organizations dictate research agendas …” and
suggests that work and organizational psychologists are
“… simply implementing organizational agendas in re-
search and focusing on narrow organizational goals such
as performance and employee well-being.We seriously
question whether the research agendas of most of our
colleagues are directly or even indirectly influenced by
organizations or their mandates. Work and organizational
psychology is concerned with workersexperience and
behavior in the work context and, accordingly, perform-
ance and well-being are important variables in our field. It
is also essential to note here that most research questions
of interest to work and organizational psychology (e. g.,
inter- and intraindividual variability in performance and
well-being) are independent of the macro-level of politics
(Rudolph & Zacher, 2018). Bal (2020) further recom-
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mends that Editors and reviewers should reject papers
that are merely studying these trite outcomes linking it to
whatever predictor.In our understanding of science,
publication decisions should be based on the quality of the
research conducted and not on political ideology.
Marx argued that the working class has to be impov-
erished and suffer greatly in order to be motivated to rise
against its capitalist oppressors. To us, a particularly
concerning aspect of Bals (2020) essay is his adaptation
of Marxs thinking to the issue of employee well-being.
Specifically, Bal (2020) writes that “… a lack of well-being
is enormously important in the wider social context.
Depression is a necessary state of affairs in contemporary
society, just as burnout is in the contemporary work-
place.Bal (2020) further notes: Lack of well-being is
important as a necessary step towards societal change
depression is informative to understand the severity of
our predicament. we have a duty to have depression, to
understand the severity of our societal predicament.
Hence feelings of depression serve an important purpose,
as they direct individuals toward the feelings of guilt
inherent to contemporary working.We maintain that
characterizing individualsdepression and burnout as
necessaryand instrumental for serving higher order
societal goals is a cynical position that seems at conflict
with the scientific and professional values and codes of
work and organizational psychology. Thus, we object to
these statements.
At the same time, we agree with Bal (2020) that it is a
good question (but, perhaps, not the only rightone) to
ask: What does the burnout epidemic tell us about the
contemporary workplace?Importantly, however, work
and organizational psychology research on, for example,
humane work design (Parker, 2014), complete tasks and
actions (Zacher & Frese, 2018), and leadership and
employee well-being (Montano, Reeske, Franke, & Hüff-
meier, 2017) already provides practically useful answers
to this question that can aid with prevention and treat-
ment of problems regarding employee health and well-
being in the workplace.
Populist Scientists Offer Simple Solutions
That Lack Sound Theorizing and Rigorous
Evidence
In his essay, Bal (2020) suggests that “… our ways of living
and working are unsustainable and destroying the planet,
but we persist in them because we do not see how we can
get out of this situation.We propose that another
strategy typically used by populist scientistsis to offer
relatively simple solutions based on their own critical
ideas and paradigms to guide us out of this situation.By
contrast, populist scientists often label other, mostly
quantitativeempirical research in work and organiza-
tional psychology as positivist. For instance, they de-
nounce research on proactivity, job crafting, and success-
ful aging as neoliberal (Bal & Dóci, 2018). Such labeling of
positive-ism and neoliberal-ism is largely a rhetorical
strategy employed by populist scientists, much like label-
ing any phenomenon as an -ism helps construct a
narrative of normative social (un)desirability.
In his essay, Bal (2020) suggests that studying work-
place behaviors such as organizational citizenship and
proactivity is “… harmful in its ideological nature,as “…
they represent a creative way to broaden the terminology
of instrumental performance-related constructs.More-
over, Bal (2020) states that: We need to investigate how
work behavior contributes to protection and restoration of
the planet, thereby radically going beyond limited con-
cepts such as pro-environmental behaviorMany more
radical questions are needed.
We contend that, unfortunately, the radical questions
and potential answers that populist scientists offer are
typically not based on sound theorizing or rigorous,
accumulated evidence. Thus, one should be cautious in
deriving practical implications from such alternative
solutions. For instance, Bal (2020) offers the dignity
paradigm(Frameworks that could be informative are
my work on workplace dignity), which arguably has not
received much empirical research attention so far. In-
stead, the summary of the dignity paradigm by Bal (2020)
seems to have a somewhat esoteric note to it: The
concept of workplace dignity describes how everything
that is part of the workplace has its intrinsic, inviolable
worth and meaning, including people, animals, the envi-
ronment, natural resources, buildings, tools, and finance.
Other critical organizational scholars have suggested
that, “… from a critical perspective, the field of manage-
ment broadly construed can be viewed as deploying
increasingly sophisticated efforts to more efficiently ex-
tract surplus value from alienated, expropriated labor
(Mumby, 2019, p. 430) and have vaguely called for a
Marxist political and economic system. This alternative,
however, has been largely rejected by the scientific
community (e. g., respo nses to Mumbys, 2019, article by
Aldag, 2019; Alliger, 2019; Andrei, Van den Broeck, &
Parker, 2019; Humphrey, Miao, & Quian, 2019).
Conclusion
Unlike Bals (2020) essay suggests, much research in
work and organizational psychology has already estab-
lished that work has a much broader meaning to people
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than merely to produce and serve corporate interests.
Similarly, many work and organizational psychologists
already frequently ask themselves what is currently
needed in our societies and workplaces.Based on our
analysis of the strategies used by populist scientists, we
urge caution regarding their arguments and recommen-
dations. In particular, we suggest that a hectic PWexit
(i.e., an abrupt stop in the study of performance and well-
being) would benefit neither work and organizational
psychology as a science, nor the profession and the
workers and organizations we represent. Work and or-
ganizational psychology is concerned with individuals
experience and behavior at work. Well-being and per-
formance are interesting and important constructs, but
are certainly not the only topics worth studying and being
studied in our field. Overall, science is about seeking the
truth and not about advancing political agendas, and we
believe that all scholars should be free to study any
interesting and important phenomena, including perform-
ance and well-being. There is no need to follow the
simplistic prescriptions of populist scientists that are often
not based on sound theorizing or empirical evidence. Such
prescriptions are, at best, absurdist and performative, and
at worst have the potential to adversely impact people,
organizations, and societies.
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ORCID
Hannes Zacher
https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6336-2947
Prof. Dr. Hannes Zacher
Institute of Psychology Wilhelm Wundt
Leipzig University
Neumarkt 9 19
04081 Leipzig
Germany
hannes.zacher@uni-leipzig.de
Prof. Dr. Cort W. Rudolph
Department of Psychology
Saint Louis University
Morrissey Hall
3700 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, MO
USA
https://doi.org/10.1026/0932-4089/a000334
Past, Present, and Future of Critical
Perspectives in Work and Organizational
Psychology A Commentary on Bal (2020)
Wolfgang G. Weber, Thomas Höge, and Severin Hornung
University of Innsbruck
Prevailing structures of domination produce a sys-
temic corrosion of moral responsibility when any
concern for people or for the environment requires
justification in terms of its contribution to profitable
growth (Adler, Forbes, & Willmott, 2007; p. 121)
In his timely essay, Bal (2020) argues that work and
organizational psychology (WOP) needs to move beyond
its present focus on constructs of performance and well-
being (advocated as) instrumental for achieving organiza-
tional goals. This focus includes ontologically and empiri-
cally rather naïve conceptualizations (as industrial and
organizational sociology has demonstrated), such as con-
gruence between worker health and performance, em-
ployee and employer interests, work behavior and free
activity. The author argues that WOP should broaden its
Dialog 207
© 2020 Hogrefe Verlag Zeitschrift für Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie (2020), 64 (3), 196215
https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/pdf/10.1026/0932-4089/a000334 - Hannes Zacher <hannes.zacher@uni-leipzig.de> - Thursday, July 30, 2020 8:30:36 AM - IP Address:109.104.53.72
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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