Organizational behavior is an academic discipline concerned with describing, understanding, predicting, and controlling human behavior in an organizational environment. The field is particularly concerned with group dynamics, how individuals relate to and participate in groups, how leadership is exercised, how organizations function, and how change is effected in organizational settings. When organizational behavior theory is directed specifically at ways in which management can control an organization, it is sometimes known as organizational behavior management, or OBM.
Organizational behavior is a fairly new discipline, dating back to the early 20th century, although some experts suggest that it came into existence right after the U.S. Civil War. Organizational behavior has evolved from early classical management theories into a complex school of thought, and it continues to change in response to the dynamic workforce in which today's businesses operate.
In 1911, Frederick W. Taylor's book, Principles of Scientific Management, was published. This book marked the first serious attempt to publish the results of scientific management studies aimed at motivating workers to produce more. Taylor was the best known of a group of people, primarily mechanical engineers, who applied time-and-motion study concepts in the workplace. These engineers focused on the task concept to show that workers could be motivated to produce more, especially if they were offered an incentive to do so.
The task concept centered around the idea that if managers planned workers' tasks at least one day in advance, production would increase. Taylor devised a differential piece-rate system based on two different rates of pay. His system was simple: workers who did less than the expected output received a low rate of pay. Those who exceeded the standard earned more money. That was a radical idea for the time. It separated the worker from the machine and indicated that employees could control how much they produced. Taylor also suggested in his approach that money motivated workers. This, too, was a unique idea. This approach became known as Theory X, and it would later be distinguished from other theories that took a different view of worker motivation and human nature. What Taylor did not do, however, was take into account group behavior. He, like most classical managers, had no concept of the importance of workers as members of groups. The next wave of theorists, the human relations experts, addressed the issue of group behavior.
Human relationists tried to add a human dimension to classical theory in their studies. They did not try to refute the classical management proponents. Rather, they introduced the idea that workers would be willing to accept as part of their reward humane treatment, personal attention, and a chance to feel wanted. To prove their point, human relationists embarked on a series of experiments.
Perhaps the most significant experiments were the Hawthorne experiments. The studies began in 1924 at the Hawthorne Works, part of the Western Electric Company, located in Cicero, Illinois. The researchers' original goal was to measure the effect of illumination on output. In simplified terms, what they actually learned was that an individual's work performance, position, and status in an organization are determined not only by the individual, but by group members, too. They also learned that workers formed cliques that affected their production and that there were certain codes of conduct members of individual cliques were expected to follow. The Hawthorne studies opened the door to more experiments by other human relationists.
The next group to take center stage in the organizational behavior arena postulated that a manager's role was not to control workers, but to facilitate employee performance. According to human resources experts, people work to make a living, but their efforts go far beyond just laboring. They also work to fulfill certain needs, e.g., contributing to organizational objectives, attaining a feeling of accomplishment, and using their creativity in the work environment. Managers were well advised to keep all these needs in mind when dealing with workers. According to the human resources theorists, managers should apply mutual goal-setting and problem-solving approaches to their workforce members. Their approach has been termed Theory Y.
Managers were encouraged to make use of whatever training was necessary to ensure maximum performance. The training could take a variety of forms, i.e., technical, human, or conceptual. They were also advised to open communication lines in all directions to promote organizational effectiveness. After all, the theorists emphasized, workers welcome self-direction and self-control and will perform well when managers take an interest in their lives. In short, the human resources advocates said, managers should place their primary emphasis on using workers as if they are important human assets.
Modem theorists apply a five-part system approach to organizational behavior:
Each part is essential. None can exist alone in the system. This system approach is the basis for modem organizational theory, which is founded on behavioral science studies.
There are three behavioral sciences: psychology (the study of individual behavior), sociology (the study of social behavior within societies, institutions, and groups), and anthropology (the study of the origin, cultural development, and behavior of humans). Each has made important contributions to the study of organizational behavior.
From an organizational standpoint, psychologists are concerned with the processes of learning, perception, and motivation. Sociologists study the various organizations that compose society, e.g., political, legal, business, governmental, and religious bodies. Finally, anthropologists are interested in the impact of culture on behavior. The three disciplines have had a major impact on the study of organizational behavior.
Organizational behavior scientists study four areas: individual behavior, group behavior, organizational structure, and organizational processes. They investigate facets of these areas like personality and perception, attitudes and job satisfaction, group dynamics, politics and the role of leadership in the organization, job design, the impact of stress on work, decision-making processes, the communications chain, and company cultures and climates. They use a variety of techniques and approaches to evaluate each facet and its impact on individuals, groups, and organizational efficiency and effectiveness.
In regard to individuals and groups, researchers try to ascertain why people behave the way they do. They have developed a variety of models designed to explain individuals' behavior. They investigate the factors that influence personality development, including genetic, situational, environmental, cultural, and social factors. Researchers also look at personality types such as authoritarian (people who adhere closely to conventional values) and dogmatic (people who are extremely rigid in their beliefs). They want to find out what causes a person to form either type of personality and learn whether one or the other—or neither—is a positive trait for people in the business world.
Researchers have also studied a number of concepts, including:
They evaluate perception versus reality, individuals' locus of control (whether they believe they or outside forces are in control of their lives), and common problems resulting from these personality traits and characteristics. Finally, they look at an individual's attitudes and correlate them to job satisfaction and job performance.
The study of job satisfaction is central to organizational behavioral scientists. Companies want to know why their employees are or are not satisfied. If they are not happy, executives look to the behavioral scientists for ways to improve individuals' attitudes and to suggest ways of improving the work environment. This implies that the theorists have to look well beyond the tangible factors influencing job satisfaction, such as pay, benefits, promotional opportunities, and working conditions. They have to study how groups influence the workplace and individuals' expectations.
Perhaps the most basic issue scholars have addressed in the area of group behavior is the definition of "group." They have agreed that there is no one definition. Therefore, they have looked more at why people join groups, types of groups, and group activities and goals. Studies have focused on group norms, individuals' behavior within groups and how it changed, their roles within groups, and what groups could accomplish that individuals could not. Many researchers believe that a group is more than the sum of the individual members, even though its goals, interactions, and performance are determined primarily by the individuals within it.
In an era when teamwork and collaboration figure prominently in many corporations' stated values, organizational behavior theory suggests some models for how people work together well, and conversely, how collaboration breaks down. As in most social science theories, there is no exact formula for how people collaborate in a work environment, but there are some significant social and psychological dimensions that influence these behaviors. Many of them relate to communication styles and methods. While electronic mail has been extolled as an important tool for efficient, speedy, and inexpensive communications, some evidence (mostly anecdotal at this stage) suggests that mechanical means of communication like e-mail hinder effective group work by fostering feelings of mistrust, distance, and apathy. By contrast, removing hierarchical and personal barriers and engendering open, face-to-face discussion appear to improve group interactions.
In another important area, organizational behavior scientists draw a distinction between leadership and management. They define management as the process of accomplishing tasks, whereas leadership is the process of getting things done by influencing other people. Another question is whether leaders are "born or made." In order to answer that question, researchers have sought common characteristics shared by leaders. They have found a few—intelligence, dependability, responsibility, social activity, and high originality—but there appear to be too many competing variables to form any universal conclusions of common leadership characteristics.
Organizational behavior scientists have identified five basic types of power managers and leaders use to influence their subordinates: reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert.
Reward power, which is based on an individual's expectation of receiving desired outcomes, was found to be a positive force. However, if the members of a group do not believe they will be rewarded for their efforts, the person in a position to offer rewards will not be able to influence the individuals. Similarly, managers who rely on coercive power, which is based on fear, will probably be unable to influence workers, especially group members, for a long period of time.
The other three types of power also have advantages and disadvantages. For instance, legitimate power, which exists as part of a manager's position in the hierarchy, is often ignored by workers who do not respect the individual filling the role. Referent power, which is based on the manager's charisma, influences only those individuals or group members who are swayed by the charismatic leader. Finally, expert power, which is power acquired from experience and learning, is a positive force, but only to the degree managers can convince individuals and group members that their leadership skills go beyond expertise alone.
People attempting to exercise power in the organization often resort to political tactics to do so. They blame others for mistakes, form power coalitions, praise co-workers and subordinates when they think it will help them achieve goals and reinforce their images. In short, they use every stratagem possible to win friends and influence people. In the process, however, they often create conflict. This prompted researchers to study conflict and its possible solutions.
Organizational behavior scientists recognize that conflict exists at both the individual and group levels. They have devised a number of ways to deal with it. Among them are mutual problem solving, compromise, and avoidance. Significantly, they discovered that conflict resolutions are most often temporary, and they have looked for ways to make them more permanent. In order to find permanent solutions, they have performed more in-depth studies of organizational structure and processes and how both affect individuals and groups.
Organizational behavior scientists have conducted extensive studies on job definitions and the tasks a job comprises. They have looked at how each job fit into different groups within the organization, a process called departmentalization. The researchers have studied managerial spans of control, i.e., the number of people an individual manager can manage most effectively. The process required that researchers reduce to its most basic level each task performed and then find ways to perform jobs more efficiently and effectively.
Many researchers have suggested viable ways that organizations could restructure jobs and relationships to stimulate job satisfaction and productivity simultaneously. They have devised better communications programs, identified the elements that create stress, and explained how it could be better managed.
Organizational behavior scientists performed extensive studies on company cultures and climates with an eye to upgrading employees' quality of life in the workplace. They have sought ways to include more people in the managerial and decision-making processes. Their suggestions have included such techniques as quality circles and participative management programs.
Quality circles, which are team approaches to identifying and resolving work-related problems, became popular in some businesses. So, too, did participative management efforts, which gave a wider variety of people opportunities to comment on—and implement—new ideas in the workplace. One prominent organizational behavior scientist, William Ouchi, recommended that American companies integrate more Japanese management concepts into their management practices. His approach became known as Theory Z.
The ideas promulgated by organizational behavior scientists have caught on in managerial circles. Not surprisingly, not all of the programs can be used by all companies. If there is one thing that researchers have recognized, it is that no two companies are alike. To compensate for the dissimilarities, behavioral scientists reformed detailed cultural profiles to determine which programs fit individual companies' needs. These profiles have illustrated the importance of culture in the field of organizational behavior. Researchers have examined how company cultures control individual and group behavior, promote innovation, foster personnel commitment, and so on.
Another subject of special interest to organizational behavior scholars is how change affects people in an organization and how the process of change can be managed to maximize its success and minimize unintended disruptions. Change is compelled by many sources: social and demographic trends, economic cycles, competition, technology, and politics and regulation, to name a few. Scholars distinguish between change that is incremental and ongoing, sometimes called first-order change, and change that is radical and episodic, termed second-order change. While each form can have both positive and negative consequences, radical changes are commonly seen as requiring the most caution and skill at pulling off.
For example, one of the most visible trends in corporate America since the 1980s has been the rise of sudden mass layoffs at large corporations, or downsizing. This clearly represents one of the largest kinds of changes a company might face, and its scope affects not only the workers who lose their jobs but also those who remain.
Researchers have found that downsizing can have both positive and negative effects on the employees who stay on. In some cases, for example, layoffs can induce employees to work harder and engage in other behaviors that benefit the company. One obvious explanation is that these workers might fear losing their jobs if they don't improve their performance, but there are likely other reasons as well, such as a move to fill a performance vacuum left by the departing workers. Still, other workers may respond by diminishing their performance; they may be demoralized by the corporate policies and may lower their mental and emotional investment in their jobs.
However, studies in organizational behavior suggest that all of these responses aren't inevitable. Scholars have suggested that the way in which the company goes about managing the change, in this case, the events leading up to and following downsizing, can have a significant effect on how employees react. This is not to say all negative reactions can be eliminated, but that there is a good chance they can be reduced. In the downsizing example, taking actions that foster trust in the management (such as open communication or demonstrating objective and consistent criteria for decision making) and that increase employee feelings of empowerment (letting workers have a say in some aspects of change) have been posited as methods of reducing some of the negative shocks of massive organizational change. Similar principles apply to managing other forms of organizational change.
More broadly, scholars like psychologist Kurt Lewin have identified basic models for managing change in organizations. In Lewin's widely cited three-step process, outlined in his 1951 classic Field Theory in Social Science, management must first "unfreeze" the status quo in the organization, facilitate a move to a new set of practices or environment, and then solidify or "refreeze" the new practices or environment into a permanent state. The process of unfreezing the current status involves introducing new policies or initiatives that begin to actively move employees away from the old way of doing things and/or removing policies or practices that tie them to the old. The second step, the shift to the new practices, is the formal implementation of the changes, for example, reorganizing a division or closing a branch office. Third, during refreezing management must solidify the changes by ensuring all the policies and practices are now geared toward maintaining the new equilibrium, and not throwbacks to the supplanted practices or lingering transition measures that create an atmosphere of instability or uncertainty.
The international economy has taken on added importance in organizational behavior circles in recent years, as international companies have special requirements and dynamics to contend with. Researchers currently are studying such things as communications between and among foreign business operations, cultural differences and their impact on individuals, language difficulties, motivation techniques in different cultures, as well as the differences in leadership and decision-making practices from country to country.
Today, organizational behavior scientists are dealing with a wide range of problems confronting the business world. For instance, they continue to study downsizing, career development in the global economy, social issues such as substance abuse and changes in family composition, and the global economy. They are trying to determine just what effects such factors are having on the workplace and what can be done to alleviate associated problems.
[ Arthur G. Sharp ]
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