What is organizational behavior?

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Organizational behavior, the scientific study of human behavior in organizations, is a subspecialty within management. It is a multidisciplinary field that draws on findings from psychology, sociology, anthropology, public administration, economics, and other behavioral sciences. Those who study organizational behavior seek to uncover truths about people in organizations and also work with organizations to enhance performance and the quality of the members’ work life.
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According to the organizational behavior division of the Academy of Management, organizational behavior examines human behavior in organizations from multiple perspectives, including those of organizational members, organizational groups, and the entire organization. The scientific study of organizational behavior has led to the development of techniques and strategies that can improve the functioning and productivity of organizations, whether large, profit-driven corporations or small nonprofit groups. This had led to the creation of organizational behavior consulting groups, which strive to improve organizational structure from a behavioral viewpoint.


American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor initiated the scientific study of organizational behavior in the 1880s, when his experiments uncovered the keys to worker productivity. Taylor called his approach scientific management, and based on his finding, he created the piece-rate pay system to improve worker motivation.

German economist and sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy was the most efficient method to organize jobs and workers. He was aware, however, that bureaucracies can limit workers through their rigid rules. His work in this area formed the basis of classical organizational theory.

Scientific management took a mechanized view of human behavior; however, many researchers thought that the emotional and social side of work was also important and developed theories along these lines. The work of sociologist Elton Mayo in this vein contributed to the human relations movement. Researchers have shifted between rational approaches, such as psychologist Herbert Simon’s work on bounded rationality in human decision making, and nonrational approaches, such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s studies of errors in human judgment. Simon won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 for his work, as did Kahneman in 2002.

Worker Attitudes and Behaviors

The performance of an organization depends on the performance of each of its members. Therefore, researchers in this area explore various dimensions of job performance. Job performance is primarily measured by successful achievement of the worker’s duties. Other job performance measures include organizational citizenship behavior (behaviors that go above and beyond a worker’s duties), employee withdrawal (tardiness, absenteeism, and turnover), and workplace deviance (the worst form being workplace violence).

When job performance suffers, so does the organization. When workers perceive that they are being treated unjustly by their organization, they respond negatively. Organizational injustice may take many forms: distributive, procedural, interpersonal, or informational. Violations of the workers’ psychological contract may cause them to mentally withdraw. Worker attitudes, such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment, also influence job performance measures.

Researchers have developed many theories of work motivation. Content theories, such as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, explore what motivates workers. Process theories—such as equity theory, expectancy theory, and goal-setting theory—examine how to motivate workers.

Organizational professionals not only help their organizations create a committed, motivated, high-performing workforce but also seek to improve work-life quality for employees. Work stress can impair workers’ mental and physical health and prevent a workforce from functioning optimally. Exploring causes of stress, such as work-life conflicts, and creating interventions, such as flextime, lead to humanizing and healthy practices on the part of the organization.

Group Behavior

Groups exert enormous influence on their members because they control powerful social-emotional rewards. By studying group processes, organizational professionals help organizations build stronger teams that support organizational goals. Maintaining harmony and the appropriate level of cohesiveness within groups are two problems faced by any organization.

Even within the best teams, conflicts emerge. Although conflict can be healthy, when it becomes personal, it can destroy group functioning. Intergroup conflict occurs even more often than intragroup conflict. Consultants help organizations manage and resolve their conflicts in healthy ways. They also teach negotiation skills so that workers can achieve win-win solutions.

People are prone to many nonrational tendencies, which, unfortunately, tend to multiply in group situations. One example is groupthink, in which the group’s need for cohesion and harmony overrides quality decision making. Organizational consultants can help organizations limit these tendencies.

Leadership and Communication

Researchers have developed many theories of leadership. They explore leader traits and behaviors, and the situations in which certain leader traits and behaviors thrive. Consultants use these theories, and others, to develop better leaders.

However, no matter the quality of the leadership, if the organization’s goals and strategies are not communicated to its workforce, little can be achieved. Communication is the lifeblood of any organization. However, effective communication is difficult because errors occur on the part of the sender and the receiver. Consultants help organizations overcome these limitations.

Organizational Perspectives

Since Weber’s groundbreaking research on bureaucracy, new ideas have emerged on organizational design. Two examples are matrix organizations, which are organized more around projects than functional departments, and modular organizations, which outsource many noncore functions.

Organizational culture influences organizational behavior. Each organization has its own culture, driven by the values and assumptions of its members. Often members of an organization are unaware of the values and assumptions that guide their behavior. If organizations are made aware of their values (such as through the creation of a mission statement), they can better live up to them.

Beginning with German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin’s action research, organizational professionals have developed various interventions that improve organizational functioning. Collectively, these are called organizational development. Organizational consultants have helped organizations better achieve their goals; however, they have also been criticized for producing results that do not last within an organization. Some consultants have therefore extended their involvement, advising on change and then providing follow-up.


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