The Basic idea
Think back to a job you hated. Maybe you were a cashier at Dunkin’ Donuts. Your co-workers were fussy, your manager was domineering, and the overall team spirit—if there was any—was dry as a bone. Now recall a job you loved. Maybe you were an Intern at Zoom. Your co-workers were kind, curious, and driven. All your assigned projects carried a fierce team spirit. Everyone seemed happy. Your manager genuinely cared about your well-being and growth, and frequently offered you opportunities to expand your skill set. Glassdoor ratings of each company reflect your experience: Dunkin’ Donuts is rated a measly 3.3 stars, whereas Zoom a staggering 4.6.
What makes workers hate working at Dunkin’ Donuts but love working at Zoom? Why do workers thrive collaboratively at Zoom while skirmishes prevail at Dunkin’? What makes a manager effective? What makes an employee effective? Such are just some of the questions that the field of organizational behavior attempts to answer. Ultimately, organizational behavior is the study of how human behavior—or psychology—drives organizations. Merging psychology with business, OB uses behavioral interventions to maximize an organization’s productivity.
Organizational behavior (OB): the study of human behavior in an organization.
Scientific Management: a theory of management that analyzes workflow to maximize workplace efficiency.
Group dynamics: the way in which people in groups interact.
Productivity: the capability of a person or organization in converting inputs into valuable outputs.
In the early 1900s, Frederic Taylor, an industrial engineer and pioneer of the Scientific Management movement, devised a new way of thinking about work. Rather than making workers work harder, he proposed, managers should help them work more efficiently. (This philosophy might ring a bell: “Work smarter, not harder!”). He broke down certain work procedures, such as laying bricks, into tiny chunks, then determined all the variables that might make each chunk of the brick-laying procedure as efficient as possible: what equipment workers should use, what motions they should perform, the time needed to perform them, and whether workers might need a break beforehand1. What made his work so revolutionary was that he was the first person to apply a scientific approach of dissection and experimentation to the workplace.
Inspired by Taylor’s pioneering work, American psychologist Elton Mayo and his colleagues from Harvard Business School took experimenting with the workplace a step further. Between 1924 to 1933, they conducted a series of experiments on workers at Hawthorne Works, an electric company in Cicero, Illinois, to determine the effect of working conditions on productivity2. These experiments were called “the Hawthorne studies”. In their first experiment, they investigated whether manipulating the factory’s lighting affected workers’ productivity. To their surprise, productivity increased in both the low-light and high-light conditions during the study, but productivity waned for both conditions once the study ended. They concluded that it wasn’t lighting that influenced workers’ productivity; rather, the researchers’ attention on them boosted their motivation to work harder.
You might think that it’s a no-brainer that lighting—something unrelated to how hard workers perform—wouldn’t affect productivity. If so, you might find their next study more compelling: rather than varying lighting, they varied workers’ wages. Specifically, they investigated whether adjusting workers’ pay based on their performance affected their productivity. In this study, they observed workers who assembled telephone switching equipment and segregated these groups to see if any interesting group dynamics emerged. These workers had a base pay, but they were also paid extra based on output: the more telephone switching equipment assembled, the higher their pay.
Surprisingly, this wage incentive did not boost workers’ productivity. The workers feared that if they boosted their output substantially, the employer might eventually lower the base rate to compensate for the extra pay, voiding their efforts. More surprisingly, Mayo and colleagues saw that each group of workers had its own productivity standard. Individuals who strayed below or beyond their group’s standard were chastised or pressured to conform. This study provided two key insights: first, that workers are not as “rational” as economists assumed; and second, that workers are more responsive to group pressures than their manager’s incentives.
Ultimately, these studies emphasized the enormous value of studying behavior in the workplace. They paved the way for more rigorous scientific inquiry into not only what boosted workers’ productivity but, eventually, how their jobs can make them feel fulfilled.
An American mechanical engineer. He was widely known for his methods to improve industrial efficiency, spearheading a movement known as Scientific Management.
An Australian-born psychologist, industrial researcher, and organizational theorist. He was a lecturer in psychology and mental philosophy at the University of Queensland between 1911 and 1922 before he was appointed to the Harvard Business School as a professor of industrial research in 1926. His association with the Hawthorne studies led to his public acclaim.
OB is consequential for the worker, the employer, and the organization. First, OB can make you a more engaged organizational member: getting along with others, feeling fulfilled in your job, lowering your workplace stress, and making better decisions—all these issues are topics of research in OB literature! Naturally, an organization is only as good as its employees, so ensuring that everyone within the workplace ecosystem is happy is vitally important for managers.
OB can also help employers in their hiring decisions. OB research heavily informs the job descriptions in job postings, because OB answers the question of what competencies—technical (e.g., coding, research), interpersonal (e.g., communication, leadership), and intrapersonal (e.g., ability to handle stressful situations)—most qualifies someone for the job. This research is especially important for competencies that you can’t easily detect from someone’s resume or in job interviews, such as leadership and adaptability.
Perhaps more important than a job candidate’s competencies, how do we know if they align with the company’s values, work culture, and other employees? Through research methods like surveys, qualitative interviews, and observations, organizational psychologists can identify the work culture a company exhibits and who might work well within it.
Finally, OB research tackles tricky issues in hiring, particularly how to make hiring procedures as equitable and inclusive as possible. Numerous studies have demonstrated that hiring managers aren’t immune to prejudice, and often engage in stereotyping or discriminatory behaviour. To prevent these psychological processes from contaminating the hiring process, OB researchers have devised recommendations to make job applications more equitable, such as name-blind selection, diversity statements, and gender-neutral language.
One of the common criticisms levied against organizational behavioral research is that the field is too theoretical. Furthermore, for the theories that do exist, there’s a lack of integration among them that makes the field struggle to advance beyond “theory proposing”3. We see this issue emerge often in research that investigates how employee’s identities, such as race, gender, and religion, inform hiring decisions. Because identity is such a hot topic, scholars have abounded with theories that try to explain how identities affect perceptions, despite vast contradictions between the theories6. For example, while the Subordinate Male hypothesis suggests gender supersedes other identities in perception, the Ethnic Prominence hypothesis suggests race supersedes other identities in perception. So which identity matters: gender, race, or both? Beyond strictly experimental contexts, where you can manipulate participants’ gender, race, or other features of their identity, how much do these theories apply to the real world where (oftentimes) we see people holistically rather than superficially? Fortunately, contemporary OB theorists mitigate this issue by collaborating with other researchers within their specialty whenever possible to avoid proposing conflicting theories. By focusing their research on what creates the most tangible impact in the workplace, OB theorists can hopefully come to more distinctive answers.
Name-blind Recruitment Project
In 2017, the Canadian federal government launched a project called “the name-blind recruitment project” to reduce bias in recruitment based on the names and ethnic origins of potential job candidates. They hired job-seekers for government jobs through two hiring procedures: the traditional hiring procedure, where all personal information on a resume was available, and a name-blind procedure, where any personal information was concealed. Factors like the applicants’ education, region of origin, languages spoken, and any organizations indicating their race or religion were hidden from recruiters, who saw only the experience section. Their research question was simple: how many visible minorities were hired under a name-blind conditions compared to the traditional review? While they didn’t find any statistically significant difference in the number of visible minorities screened in between both conditions, they did find that the ratio of visible minorities screened in improved in the name-blind condition. In essence, a greater proportion of visible minorities were screened in relative to Caucasian candidates. This suggests that name-blind hiring procedures could make hiring more equitable4.
Google, often recognized as the world’s most attractive employer, flaunts a work environment that’s any employee’s dream: we see play-ground slides replace stairs, buffets featuring unlimited free food, and access to high-tech gyms and saunas. While these amenities are great, simply replacing your desk chairs with beanbags won’t guarantee great results. After all, 86% of Google employees also say that they’re satisfied with their jobs and the company is rated 4.4/5 on Glassdoor for a reason. Besides its fun, futuristic aesthetic, what makes Google’s work culture so successful?
Google management is what OB researchers call “bottom-up” driven5. Whereas tasks and duties from a “top-down” company always come from managerial higher-ups in the workplace hierarchy, “bottom-up” companies allow their employees to decide their own responsibilities. Further, Google employees are given a creative license to pursue their side-projects, allowing 20% of their work hours to be dedicated to making these dreams come to fruition. Google knows that by empowering their employees with a sense of autonomy unrivaled by competing tech companies, they not only make their workers happy, but also allow the company to optimize their productivity.
Related TDL Content
Where do work cultures come from? One answer is social norms. Social norms are collectively held beliefs about what behavior is appropriate in a given situation. They range from specific customs—such as saying “How are you?” when seeing someone in Western cultures—to more general rules that govern behavior and influence our understanding of other people, such as never texting a co-worker after-hours, or being polite to people you meet.
- Bluedorn, A., & Taylor, F. (1986). Scientific Management (Comprising Shop Management, the Principles of Scientific Management, and Testimony before the Special House Committee). The Academy Of Management Review, 11(2), 443. doi: 10.2307/258472
- McShane, S. (2020). Organizational Behavior. Columbus: McGraw-Hill US Higher Ed USE.
- Kim, P., Ployhart, R., & Gibson, C. (2018). Editors’ Comments: Is Organizational Behavior Overtheorized?. Academy Of Management Review, 43(4), 541-545. doi: 10.5465/amr.2018.0233
- Canada, P. (2017). Anonymized Recruitment Pilot Project ─ Final report – Canada.ca. Retrieved 16 July 2021, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-service-commission/services/publications/Name-blind-recruitment-pilot-project.html
- Gummer, B. (1990). Managing Organizational Cultures: Administration In Social Work, 14(1), 135-153. doi: 10.1300/j147v14n01_09
- Levin, S., Sinclair, S., Veniegas, R. C., & Taylor, P. L. (2002). Perceived discrimination in the context of multiple group memberships. Psychological Science, 13, 557-560. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00498