Corporate America has come a long way since the days when children worked alongside adults in dangerous factories, no one got paid vacation or sick leave, and workers who suffered a serious injury found themselves out of a job and out of luck.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a top-down leadership style held sway in many workplaces. Under that autocratic model, employees had few rights or control over their work. They simply did what they were told under threat of losing their livelihood.
As society changed, so did corporate America. Not only did organizational behavior evolve, but it also became a subject of extensive study. Researchers drew from psychology, sociology, and anthropology, documenting the changing workplace and helping to guide companies toward new operating methods.
That quest continues to this day. A January 2023 Gallup report indicates that more than two-thirds of American workers don’t feel engaged with their jobs. Employee dissatisfaction included not feeling heard or cared about, lack of clarity on job expectations, and disconnection from an employer’s mission or purpose.
These are the sorts of issues addressed in the study of organizational behavior, which continues to thrive more than a century after it began. A degree or certificate in organizational behavior can lead to a variety of career options in a fascinating field with countless applications.
In the wake of the autocratic model came less authoritarian, more egalitarian methods that gave employees more rights and privileges. Subsequent models have leveled the playing field dramatically, treating employees across the board as valuable team members with a stake in their company’s success. We’ll examine five models of organizational behavior below:
If you’ve read Charles Dickens you have a pretty good handle on the autocratic model. Keith Davis, a researcher from Arizona State University and author of Human Relations at Work: The Dynamics of Organizational Behavior, summed it up back in 1968: “You do this – or else.” Workers were often treated as interchangeable cogs in the machine with little or no regard for their comfort, safety, autonomy, or opinions. Not surprisingly, employees rarely felt inspired to give their all.
“Management assumes that employees are passive and even resistant to organizational needs,” Davis writes. “They have to be persuaded and pushed into performance, and this is management’s task. Management does the thinking; the employees obey the orders.”
Despite its drawbacks, the autocratic model does have some advantages. It’s the simplest model, and its top-down orientation streamlines the decision-making process.
The autocratic model is largely a relic of the industrial revolution. It may linger in a few highly automated factories, but it has mostly disappeared in the 21st century.
The custodial model represented a modest step forward from the autocratic model, substituting incentives for threats. Workers gained more economic resources and benefits, including health and financial benefits such as retirement plans. This model also pioneered a new approach to downsizing, with employers seeking to avoid layoffs by offering early retirement incentives, reduced overtime, and hiring freezes.
Though an obvious improvement over the autocratic model, the custodial approach still did little to motivate workers or improve job performance. They offered passive cooperation, at best. “The employees in this environment are more psychologically contented and preoccupied with their rewards, but it is not necessary they would be strongly motivated to give the performance,” Jesal Shethna writes for EDUCBA.
Teamwork also suffers under the custodial model, Galih Wibowo writes in Management and Economics Research Journal: “In this model, employees will not work as a team (less to share with others) because everyone will tend to focus on themselves to benefit more than others.”
The next evolution in organizational behavior came in the form of the supportive model, which turned the autocratic model on its head by redirecting the focus on creating motivated workers. This required attentive supervisors capable of a managerial orientation that values employee input.
The supportive model emerged from a study that began just under a century ago (1924), at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, a manufacturing facility near Chicago. A research team consisting of a psychologist and two sociologists concluded that performance increased when workers knew they were being watched–a phenomenon that came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect. Their efforts over an eight-year period represent “the largest, best known and most influential investigations in the history of organizational research,” John S. Hassard writes.
Under the supportive model, workers are encouraged to think for themselves and take initiative with a goal toward self-discipline, self-improvement, and increased responsibility. Managers are expected to learn and nurture their employees’ “talents, interests, and goals,” Kristen Bialik writes in Capterra.
The supportive model persists primarily “in developed nations where the needs of the employees are different as it fulfills many of the employees’ emerging needs,” Shethna writes.
While the supportive model represented a significant step forward in terms of worker autonomy, the next step took that concept even further. The collegial model downplayed the whole boss-subordinate concept and shifted the emphasis to making everyone feel like members of a team, working together toward a common goal.
The collegial model was just coming into its own when Davis wrote about it in 1968: “Each employee feels that he is contributing something worthwhile and is needed and wanted. He feels that management and others are similarly contributing, so he accepts and respects their roles in the organization.”
The collegial model highlights several major features, Leila Shrifian writes in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Science:
While the collegial model does a better job of meeting employee needs than its predecessors, it presupposes a level of commitment that not all employees will share. For someone primarily interested in keeping their head down and earning a paycheck, the collegial model may be a poor fit.
The latest addition to the organizational behavior collection is the system model, a product of extensive research. It places greater emphasis on the individual worker than any of its predecessors, recognizing that each one has different talents, goals, and potential.
The system model looks beyond economic security and teamwork toward more abstract goals such as finding value and meaning in work. This model emphasizes ethics, integrity, trust, and a community feeling. The goal is to hit the sweet spot where job satisfaction meets organizational goals: confident, self-motivated workers doing their best for themselves and their employer.
Wibowo cites several key characteristics of the system model, including:
Researchers frequently point to Starbucksas a good example of the system model in action.
“Committed, enthusiastic employees are necessary to deliver good service and provide an appealing ambience for customers throughout their coffee buying and consumption experience,” Daniel Barnes writes. “Thus, Starbucks’s success is a result of the effective strategies for motivating and sustaining employees’ interest in the company’s offerings, including its products, working environment, and culture.”
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Educational offerings for organizational behavior management include standalone courses, bachelor’s and master’s degree, graduate certificates, and doctorates. You can find learning opportunities in person and online.
Degree programs and classes fall under various departments, including business, psychology, and sociology. Bachelor’s programs include:
Here’s a sampling of master’s degree and graduate certificate programs:
Some schools offer all of the above; they include Cornell University.
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