Human Resources

What is Organizational Behavior?

What is Organizational Behavior?
Modern management is more likely to try to humanize the workplace and improve working conditions in order to improve results. Image from
Angela Miller profile
Angela Miller November 9, 2022

The modern workplace is a complex ecosystem filled with competing personalities. You'll likely find every type of employee—from quiet quitters to overachievers—among your colleagues. The field of organizational behavior explores how the work environment affects human attitudes, cognition, behavior, and organizational structure.

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Institutions of all sizes and functions can benefit from understanding employee behavior and organizational processes. The field of organizational behavior examines both; it provides a better understanding of the dynamics impacting job satisfaction, engagement, management, and organizational politics, along with the ways these factors impact job performance and employee productivity.

Mastering this subject is likely to give you a leg up on your professional compatriots and position you for success in any organization.

In this article, we’ll answer the question what is organizational behavior in more detail. We’ll cover:

  • Organizational behavior defined
  • Three levels of analysis: individual, group, and organization
  • Organizational culture
  • Change management
  • Studying organizational behavior management

Organizational behavior defined

Organizational behavior combines psychological, sociological, and anthropological concepts to describe how people behave in organizational work environments. It also explores issues at the organizational level, including culture, structure, design, and change management.

Historical foundation of organizational behavior

The onset of the Industrial Revolution effected a shift in the nature of daily work. Workplaces became more hierarchical, leading to conflict. Among the results: unionism and workplace revolutions. Organizational behavior grew from managers’ efforts to reduce contention by better understanding employee behavior and organizational structure.

According to Investopedia, the study of organizational behavior originated in the late 1920s when the Western Electric Company spearheaded a series of studies focusing on working conditions. Researchers initially set out to discover whether environmental upgrades would lead to increased productivity. This spurred a series of studies between 1924 and 1933 focusing on how work breaks, isolation, and lighting impact employee productivity.

Ultimately, the research suggested that social factors have a greater impact than physical factors; workers who feel valued by their bosses and get along with their coworkers are more productive than those provided with improved lighting and workplace design.

Employees in today’s workforce are generally more educated, skilled, and ambitious than their forebears. They also tend to be concerned with how their workplace might benefit their personal lives. Modern management is more likely to try to humanize the workplace and improve working conditions in order to improve results. The study of organizational behavior can help employees and managers make positive strides in both respects.

Organizational behavior is a discipline covering three factors of analysis: individuals, groups, and the organization. The subject includes:

  • Common biases and errors in decision-making
  • Conflict management
  • Effects of individual differences in attitudes
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Employee values
  • Ethical decision-making and leadership
  • Implications for performance and management
  • Management of a diverse workforce
  • Optimal performance of employees and teams

A deeper understanding of these topics can lead toward improvements in employee well-being, teamwork, and retention.

Benefits of studying organizational behavior

Companies are only as effective and impactful as their employees. Employee satisfaction often directly correlates to organizational success. Building and maintaining a competent, driven, and happy workforce can help increase productivity to achieve company goals. Organizational behavior is often an effective means to this end.

Consider the companies you’ve either worked for or supported as a customer. Did you always have positive, issue-free experiences? Probably not. Maybe you were put on hold for too long, had difficulty getting simple answers to your questions, or worked for an unsupportive manager.

When you study organizational behavior, you learn why some organizations are more effective than others and why some managers can bring out the best in their employees while others struggle to make a positive impact.

Learning about organizational behavior can help you understand your own behaviors, attitudes, and moral values. You can use what you learn to increase job satisfaction, lower stress levels, and improve performance.

Managers can leverage this discipline to achieve organizational goals and help their employees reach peak performance. Research shows that organizations that value their employees are more profitable than those that do not. Successful companies exhibit strong organizational behavior characteristics, including role clarity, information sharing, and job performance feedback.



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Three levels of analysis: individual, group, and organization

The most widely accepted model of organizational behavior contains three distinct, interrelated levels: individual (micro), group (meso), and organization (macro). Organizational behavior examines how interactions take place among those three levels with the aim of improving organizational performance and human resource management. Each level offers insights for guiding managers to create and maintain a healthier work environment.

Individual/micro level

The micro, or individual, level of organizational behavior revolves around social and organizational psychology. These studies focus on individual and group dynamics within a company. It can include assessing employee personality types, analyzing mentorship styles, and rewarding employees according to their preferences.

Group/meso level

The meso, or group, level focuses on understanding how individuals come together to form groups and teams. It involves social psychology and sociological insights into interaction and group dynamics. Topics at this level include communication, leadership, power, politics, and conflict.

Organization/macro level

The macro, or organization, level examines the strategies and structures that guide companies on how to adapt organizational behavior. It derives from research across three disciplines: organizational psychology, organizational sociology, and organizational anthropology. This level explores how organizations move in markets and how their strategies regarding employees and leadership affect the performance of the entire organization. Diversity, job equality, and ethical behavior comprise common macro-level topics in America.

Organizational culture

It seems as though more and more companies are talking about their culture and values. Why? Because culture is important to not only the company but also to consumers and employees. If you’ve been on an interview lately, you may have asked about company culture or heard from a prospective employer that you’d made a good “cultural fit.” When you visit a company’s “about” page, you’ll likely find some information regarding what they consider to be their cultural values.

An organization’s culture defines the proper way to behave within the company. Organizational culture includes the expectations, practices, and values that guide and inform the actions of all team members. It’s a shared set of beliefs and values established by leaders and communicated to the greater organization.

Change management

Businesses must now evolve and adapt to the ever-changing nature of technology and innovation. Organizations that are able to quickly shift and change will gain a competitive advantage for themselves.

Change management refers to all methods aimed at preparing, supporting, and helping individuals, teams, and organizations in implementing organizational change. Successful change management occurs when organizations:

  • Define measurable goals and create plans for their achievement
  • Monitor assumptions, risks, dependencies, costs, return on investment, and cultural issues
  • Communicate effectively by informing stakeholders of the reasons for change, benefits of successful implementation, and relevant details
  • Develop impactful education and training plans for the organization
  • Align company employees to the overall strategic direction of the business
  • Oversee implementation and tweaking as required

Studying organizational behavior management

Students can learn organizational behavior management in degree programs, certificate programs, and standalone courses. Academic programs focusing on organizational behavior are offered by business schools as well as by schools of social work and psychology. The programs often take a multi-disciplinary approach, drawing from anthropology, ethnography, psychology, sociology, and leadership studies.

You can study specific topics within organizational behavior or choose broader study areas, including:

  • Dynamics of change
  • How social movements influence markets
  • Markets
  • Power of social networks
  • Relationships between organizations and their environments
  • Social systems

According to U.S. News and World Report, top colleges offering master’s degree programs with an emphasis on organizational behavior include Indiana University – Bloomington, The University of Texas at Dallas, Michigan State University, American University, and Saint Vincent College.

Organizational behavior gives people the tools that enable workplaces to thrive. If you’re wondering how to enhance organizational effectiveness, organizational behavior research is a solid pathway. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs attributed the innovations at his company to people, noting:”Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have… it’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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