Psychology Of Organizational Behavior Research Paper

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Organizational behavior (OB) denotes a relatively new area of research and practice of psychology. It refers to the study of both the psychological and social antecedents and consequences of behavior of individuals and groups in organizations, as well as the psychological and social antecedents and consequences of the behavior of organizations. Stressing a psychological point of view, this research paper defines the field of OB and describes the main characteristics of its dominant domains, their methodological implications, and the likely future directions of OB.



1. The Nature Of The Field

As in any new scientific field, various attempts have been made by different authors to define the field of OB. In the very first review entitled ‘Organizational behavior’ in the Annual Re iew of Psychology, Mitchell (1979, p. 244) considers OB as a ‘distinct discipline with a focus on individual and group behavior in the organizational context,’ thus making it virtually synonymous with traditional work and organizational psychology. Staw (1984, p. 628) underlines the interdisciplinary character and the two main orientations of the field, the stress on micro and macroissues: ‘organizational behavior is an interdisciplinary field that examines the behavior of individuals within organizational settings as well as the structure and behavior of organizations themselves.’ According to this view, microaspects are dealt with by psychology whereas macroaspects are treated by sociology, political science, and economics, making OB appear as two distinct subdisciplines, an impression which is further fostered by different professional identifications of the students of OB. Others simply define OB operationally in terms of the organizational research topics and issues published over time in scientific psychological periodicals (Rousseau 1997) covering, for instance, leadership, motivation, organizational technology, job analysis, legal issues, and organizational performance.

A more integrative stance is taken by Schneider (1985, p. 574) in focusing on the types of studies conducted in OB: ‘OB is the confluence of individual, group, and organizational studies flowing from industrial–organizational (I O) psychology and organizational and management theory (OMT) with headwaters in psychology (social, psychometrics), sociology (organizational, work, and occupational), and management (scientific, human relations).’ Given this mixed heritage of OB, its scope is extremely broad, covering both micro-and macrophenomena of organizations. McGrath (1976), in an early, even more comprehensive manner, conceptualizes OB as the intersecting area of three systems: the physical– technical structural, the social–interpersonal, and the person system of organization members.

From a psychological point of view, OB may thus be defined as an emergent field of scientific inquiry which is constituted by the converging contributions of various social and behavioral sciences focusing on multilevel and multidimensional antecedents and consequences of psychological phenomena in organizations. The multilevel perspective of OB implies that literally all relevant levels and dimensions that either condition or are conditioned by psychological phenomena in organized settings fall into the scope of OB studies: the levels of the individual–personal, the group, the managerial, the technological, the organizational-structural, the interorganizational, and environmental. The notion of multiple dimensions refers here to organizational practices, processes, and outcomes of any of the relevant system levels as proper problems of OB studies.

Although the study of organizational issues has been part and parcel throughout the history of work and organizational psychology (Munsterberg 1912), it remains a moot question why it was only during the last three decades of the twentieth century that OB entered the scene as a distinct subfield of scientific inquiry. One may hypothesize that factors seem to have interacted here that are partly due to change in society and partly due to intrinsic developments of science, both of which made their effects particularly felt in the decades after World War II. Epochal shifts in the work force such as the growth of the service sector of economy, the demographic changes in terms of age and gender composition implied drastic restructuring of vocational and professional profiles. The cost-effective wholesale introduction of new information and communication technologies in work settings created dramatic challenges to a novel division of labor. Social value changes such as the changing subjective meaning of working (MOW 1987) and the increase of international market competition may have further been contributing factors of societal change to highlight the need for the reform of work organizations and social institutions that had to go far beyond a restructuring of individual work places. Required were more holistic approaches to the study and practice of organizational change and performance that eschewed monodisciplinary psychological treatments. This is where progress in science offered itself as a promising solution: the emergence of systems theory as a meta-theoretical intellectual vehicle to facilitate multilevel studies and to link different scientific disciplines to each other in the analysis of complex scientific and practical problems appears to have been a further necessary condition for OB to acquire scientific credibility as an interdisciplinary field.

Despite its comparatively short history, OB is far from displaying a unified common theoretical framework and a corresponding set of issues under study. The most important theoretical underpinnings and the substantive problems studied in their perspective will be addressed next. These theoretical perspectives represent umbrella orientations usually encompassing diverse theoretical positions of varying scope which, depending on one’s meta-theoretical penchant, may also be classified differently.

2. Theoretical Paradigms And Topical Foci

2.1 Psychology Of Individual Differences

The basic tenet of differential psychology within OB is the assumption that personal characteristics constitute the core of variables to be studied by psychology either as causal (at least moderating) factors of consequent psychological social phenomena or as the most important outcomes of individual experience in organizational settings. The microperspective dominates here. Within this theory class might also be counted the important approaches of expectancy and of goal setting theory inasmuch as individual characteristics (e.g., preferences, competencies) need to be considered by them. The former surmises that subjectively expected outcome values (subjective expected utilities (SEU)) guide individual decision-making behavior (Naylor et al. 1980), the latter postulates that goals, self-set individually or interactively by subordinates and superordinates, constitute potent predictors of subsequent behavior in organizations.

Major topical concerns within this paradigm concentrate on issues such as the role of personality and leadership style as conditioning work group and organizational performance (including absenteeism from work, turnover), work attitudes (causes and consequences of job satisfaction, meaning of working, and work commitment motivation).

2.2 Bureaucratic Theory

An important contribution to the advancement of OB was made by the interdisciplinary team of Aston University (Birmingham, UK) under the leadership of a psychologist, Derek Pugh (Pugh and Hickson 1976). Taking Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy as the starting point, the Aston group deviated from the received single-level analytic procedure and proposed to overcome this by integrating the analysis of three levels: situational factors (size of organization, technology, environment), organizational structure (decision centralization, specialization, formalization, configuration), and member experience and behavior. A basic assumption was that cross-level effects had to be taken into account in the sense that an organization’s technology would impact the division of labor, i.e., the role structure of the organization which, in turn, would influence autonomy and individual outcomes such as the evaluation of one’s work setting (motivation, commitment, satisfaction). Thus the Aston approach covers both micro-and macro-dimensions of OB.

As a major achievement of the Aston group, apart from introducing from its outset a theoretical multilevel and interdisciplinary perspective, must be considered its success in setting current psychometric standards for the development of instruments for an adequate analysis of organization structure and its interaction with variables on other system levels. A burgeoning body of studies followed from their lead.

2.3 Cognitive Psychology

The generally noted ‘cognitive shift’ in psychology during the latter part of the twentieth century soon was also to reach OB and to influence paradigmatic thinking in the field. Cognitive processes are in this perspective considered to mediate or govern behavior. Various positions fall under the umbrella category of cognitive psychology, some of which achieved prominence in OB; the three most important ones are social cognition, expectancy theory, and attribution theory.

Social cognition refers to processes among relevant actors which produce socially shared representations, views, and perceptions of organizational realities. Thus some ‘social constructivist’ authors claim that organizational phenomena are mainly socially constructed and articulated through negotiated goals, structures, artifacts, through myths, rituals, stories, and symbols which result in organization-specific, intersubjectively shared meanings and values (Turner 1990). Social constructivism favors an ethno-methodological and anthropological, holistic approach to organizations which lends itself to the analysis of molar organizational features such as organizational culture and climate. Under the heading of social cognition must also be mentioned the significant contribution of equity theory, which focuses on an actor’s input: output ratio in comparison with the respective ratio of similar others with the resulting energy expenditure and work satisfaction. Expectancy theory, as described above, addresses the cognitive processes of organization members’ choices according to perceived SEU. It has shown considerable fruitfulness in the study of leadership, self-efficacy, and work motivation. Attribution theory, owing to its focus on perceptual processes concerning perceived causes of success and failure, has to a large extent influenced theorizing and empirical research on achievement motivation and respective performance in organizations.

2.4 Action Theory

Many different theoretical social and behavioral science approaches go under the guise of ‘action theory.’ Some of them play a major role in OB. A large body of German theoretical and empirical literature under the name of action control regulation theory needs to be subsumed here (Frese and Zapf 1994). It combines elements of cybernetics and cognitive aspects of goaloriented behavior (actions) that is assumed to be regulated by feedback loops concerning the deviations from goal achievement which necessarily includes the consideration of task and technical components of task and organization structures. The approach has proven its usefulness in a wide variety of domains, e.g., human error analysis, personality and competence development, individual task and organization design, linking socially shared meanings, and values to collective action control.

A notable French approach of sociological provenance (Crozier and Friedberg 1977) puts social actors (individuals, groups, organizations) and their various strategies of playing their power games into the center of its theoretical and empirical analysis. In this context, games are not understood in a metaphoric sense, but as concrete mechanisms to structure organizational power relations among interdependent actors negotiating degrees of freedom within given organizational and environmental constraints and opportunities. Games are here considered as the very instruments that regulate and sustain stability and integration of organized behavior based on accepted rules of the games. Thus the authors succeed in encompassing both micro and macroaspects of OB (see 501061).

The notion of autopoiesis, derived from biology (Maturana et al. 1980), has attracted growing interest also in OB. The concept refers to the continuous and structurally coupled adjustment of living systems to their extant environment and their continuous systemic self-reproduction. It has been applied to, among others, self-organizing capacities of institutions of public administration and their sustained regeneration of the bureaucracy and the autonomy and self- governance of organizations acting in the public area. The link of micro- and macroaspects of organizations in their given environment becomes clearly dominant in this perspective.

2.5 Systems Thinking

A lasting paradigmatic contribution to OB was made by the so-called socio-technical systems approach (STSA), developed soon after World War II by a group of social scientists of the London-based Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (Emery and Trist 1960). The approach grew out of general systems theory and is predicated on important assumptions concerning the interaction of an organization’s social subsystem (its members, role structure) and its technical subsystem (task structure, technology). In linking task and technological elements to the social patterns of organization, STSA paved the ground for systematic analysis and design of work places and work organizations. Work and organizational design was postulated to proceed always through joint optimization of both subsystems in order to guarantee efficiency. The increased participation of employees in organizational change programs became a leading principle. Thus it was possible to take into account both the characteristics of organization members (their values, aspirations, expectations, social and hierarchical relations, role ascriptions, etc.) and the organization’s technical dimensions.

The theoretical innovations of the STSA proved to be of great practical usefulness in providing guidelines for the design of work and work organizations which met, for instance, the demands of differential levels of human competencies and also of technical and task demands. The large majority of work humanization programs of the 1970s and 1980s profited from them in many industrialized countries. It facilitated improvements in the adequate introduction of new information and communication technologies, the creation of flexible production units, the formation of semiautonomous work groups, and the creation of large-scale industrial democracy schemes.

3. Unresolved Issues And Future Directions Of OB

The multilevel perspective of OB poses an intriguing theoretical problem: how can and should the relationships of several system levels be conceptualized? One case in point is problems such as the structural interrelations of organization-specific features (organization strategy and structure, membership resources, organizational practices, output) and characteristics of their institutional and societal environment (dominant culture, education and legal system, economic and technological status). While there is growing evidence that these features are interrelated and influence each other, theoretical integration remains lacking. A possibly promising theoretical solution might be found in Giddens’ theory of structuration. Giddens (1984) postulates a dual nature of institutions recursively reconstituting and maintaining each other. On the one hand, institutions, by virtue of their existence, facilitate action of individuals and of organizations, and on the other hand, by virtue of the acting actors, the institutions are recursively constituted and sustained. The theory still being on a rather abstract level requires further development in order to make it fruitful in OB.

A methodological problem of considerable difficulty is the need to account for effects of time. Change and continuity of organizations may be likened to quasistationary equilibria (Lewin 1952). Like rivers they are in continual flux while preserving their identity and basic characteristics for some time. One methodological response of OB to study change and continuity was to repeat several cross-sectional studies at various points in time, thus approaching some sort of longitudinal evaluation. Another response was to trace organizational developments historically through document analysis and interviewing. Yet another approach seems to be to employ more ‘dense’ descriptions of organizational processes over time by way of ethnographic participant observation. This is a choice that is increasingly advocated and implemented by many researchers in spite of its cost, simply because of its superior information yield.

Finally, it may be that at the turn of the millennium, societal changes as alluded to above will gather further momentum to induce also a new organizational era impacting on OB. According to Rousseau (1997), organizations seem to be faced with the challenge of increasing upheaval and transition of depth and magnitude that were hitherto unknown. She refers to governmental measures of deregulation, global competition, the explosion of information technology in manufacturing and service sectors, the uncoupling of traditional education from work demands, the emergence of small-firm employment, new and more differentiated employment relations, outsourcing among firms and inter-organizational networking, shifts from managerial prerogatives to self-management, transition from rule-regulated work to self-reliance, and continuous adaptation of workers. In short, traditional internal organizational structures are becoming more fluid and the boundaries of organizations blurred. The perceived meaning of organization as a clear-cut entity seems in need of change to adaptive organizing. A reorientation of OB with reference to thematic foci in addition to theoretical underpinnings would have to be the consequence of such developments. Theoretically, a renewed emphasis on the conceptualization of the dynamics of organizational and interorganizational processes is called for. New topical issues are likely and desirable to emerge as concern for OB, such as the changing nature of employment and equitable forms of remuneration, emergence of multiple loyalties, individual learning for self-management and career development, organizational learning, and intervention methods to introduce and to sustain change. OB seems to be facing new and wide areas to be examined, a task for which its intrinsic multilevel and interdisciplinary outlook will be a definite asset.

Comprehensive treatments of the field can be found in the following publications: Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vols. 1–4 (see Frese and Zapf 1994); Annual Review of Psychology; International Reviews of I O Psychology; Administrative Science Quarterly; Organizational Studies; Human Relations; and Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.


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