Human Resources

Why is Organizational Behavior Important in Healthcare Today?

Why is Organizational Behavior Important in Healthcare Today?
As with any large-scale organization, healthcare settings tend to adhere to a hierarchical structure, and varying levels of authority can contribute to lapses in communication. Image from
Angela Miller profile
Angela Miller November 9, 2022

Quality of care boils down to the people who are involved in the process. Whether it's a healthcare manager, care provider, or a human resources management professional, solid organizational behavior management can mean the difference between a failing or thriving healthcare organization.

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These days it’s common to hear that employees don’t leave organizations; they leave managers. Along the same lines, you could argue that patients don’t leave healthcare organizations; they leave ineffective care providers. All operations, including those in the healthcare industry, can benefit from organizational behavior principles, which help management understand employee behaviors, boost morale, and improve organizational culture.

Organizational behavior informs how organizations operate and what their futures may hold. By focusing on behavior, organizational behavior management provides a practical approach to address critical components of flawed operations. In the healthcare sector, organizational behavior can increase patient satisfaction, ensure improved quality of care, and inform a patient safety approach to healthcare that strategically integrates behaviorism and humanism.

So, why is organizational behavior important in healthcare today? This article explores that question by covering the following topics:

  • What is organizational behavior?
  • Organizational behavior in healthcare
  • Studying organizational behavior management

What is organizational behavior?

Organizational behavior is an applied behavioral science that combines psychological, sociological, and anthropological concepts to better understand what incentives increase productivity and job satisfaction. It also draws from the disciplines of political science and economics. Organizational behavior explores:

  • Why people behave the way they do in organizations
  • What circumstances can provoke change in people’s behaviors
  • How organizations impact the behavior of individuals, formal groups, and informal groups
  • Why disparate groups develop different behavior norms

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Organizational behavior in healthcare

Organizational behavior management in healthcare settings helps to ensure patient safety, patient-centered approaches to care, ethical behavior among healthcare professionals, and changes to increase patient satisfaction and spur quality improvements.

Like all businesses, healthcare organizations face numerous challenges in leadership, organizational hierarchy, decision making, group dynamics, conflict management, workforce shortages, and team building. Organizational behavior offers a way to navigate these issues by gaining a deeper understanding of human behavior. The discipline enables managers and healthcare professionals to learn the psychological, sociological, and anthropological principles driving workplace behavior.

Healthcare organizational structure

As with any large-scale organization, healthcare settings tend to adhere to a hierarchical structure, and varying levels of authority can contribute to lapses in communication. Professionals in these settings are often reluctant to report errors or incidents to their superiors and senior colleagues due to possible negative impacts on their career advancement.

With the implementation of positive reinforcement and organizational behavior management techniques, practitioners and managers become more inclined to communicate openly with one another.

Diversity in the healthcare industry

The healthcare industry draws its workforce from an exceptionally diverse pool. The confluence of such varied personalities and backgrounds increases the need for leaders with sound organizational behavior knowledge.

Healthcare organizations need to be flexible to change and meet diversity challenges—now more than ever. Inclusivity is a crucial component in this effort. Diversity expert Dr. William A. Guillory recommends a 10-step process:

  1. The creation of a customized business plan for diversity for an organization
  2. The execution of staff training to build understanding of diversity and its correlation to organizational success
  3. The establishment of a standard by conducting a comprehensive cultural survey, including performance, inclusion, climate, and work/life balance
  4. The prioritization of issues that bring about the strongest impact in transforming culture
  5. The development of a three- to five-year strategic plan tied to organizational business objectives
  6. Leadership approval and financial commitment to the plan
  7. Accountability measures for top leadership to achieve goals
  8. Implementation of the plan
  9. Regular training related to skills and competencies necessary to successfully achieve the diversity action plan
  10. Assessment of how inclusion has changed after one to one and a half years of launch

Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and employment research at MIT, asserts that success in managing a diverse healthcare workforce “requires a sustained, systemic approach and long-term commitment.” That effort is worthwhile because diversity creates the “opportunity for everyone in an organization to learn from each other how better to accomplish their work” within “a supportive and cooperative organizational culture.”

Three goals of organizational behavior

Organizational behavior has become increasingly important in the healthcare industry because it increases the effectiveness and efficiency with which people from diverse backgrounds and cultural values work together. The field pursues three main goals:

  1. Exploring the roots of individual behavior within organizational settings
  2. Predicting individual and group behavior on the basis of internal and external factors
  3. Equipping managers and senior leadership with the tools to manage individuals and groups to accomplish organizational goals

Evidence-based guidelines to improve patient care

Evidence-based research underlies organizational behavior’s clinical recommendations. Collecting that evidence is an arduous task that can take up to 17 years. Implementation requires not only rigorous research and analysis but also meeting resistance to new practices; in healthcare, as in many industries, entrenched practices can be difficult to dislodge.

The ultimate goal, of course, is effective and safe patient care. According to behavioral psychologist E. Scott Geller, patient safety practices should be people-based and driven by the following guidelines:

  • Target observable behavior
  • Focus on outside factors to explain and improve behavior
  • Direct with antecedents and motivate with positive consequences
  • Design interventions with consideration of internal emotions and attitudes
  • Employ the scientific method to improve intervention strategies.
  • Integrate information with theory, and do not limit possibilities.

Organizational behavior for patient safety

A Google search on how to improve patient safety yields innumerable hits. Nearly all share in common an origin in organizational behavior strategies. Common tactics include:

  • Garnering patient feedback
  • Automating quality and risk processes
  • Implementing and monitoring improvements
  • Increasing the safety of healthcare professionals
  • Fostering open communication and teamwork
  • Observing points along the care continuum
  • Encouraging staff incident reporting

Thanks in part to our information era, modern patients grow ever more attentive to patient safety practices. Meeting their rising expectations requires managers fluent in organizational behavior management practices.

Case studies using organizational behavior to reduce medical error

Patient safety is paramount at any healthcare organization. Common safety challenges—including surgical errors, preventable infections, practical mistakes, misdiagnoses, deterrence errors, and medication use liabilities—exact enormous human and financial costs. That’s why the organizational behavior techniques that can reduce these errors are so essential in the modern healthcare system. Several well-documented case studies highlight successful applications of organizational behavior management to improve healthcare worker performance and reduce medical errors.

In one study, researchers examined various feedback schedules to determine which best supported the acquisition and maintenance of three healthcare routines: feeding, positioning, and transferring physically disabled patients. All schedules effectively increased and maintained target behaviors, but densely scheduled feedback produced more immediate behavior change.

Another example showed how organizational behavior techniques such as training, goal setting, and feedback spurred nurses’ increased compliance with procedures to lessen the probability of accidental exposure to blood-borne pathogens. Hand sanitizing rose from 24 to 65 percent during the intervention. Precautionary measures, such as recapping needles with one hand, removing gloves from the inside out, and wearing gloves while discarding waste also increased as a result of the intervention.

In another example, setting goals with interpersonal reviews of behavior-based feedback increased nurses’ use of behavioral feedback to promote infection control practices in a head injury treatment center. Other studies revealed that applied performance feedback increased nurses’ use of sterile gloves in infectious circumstances in an emergency room.

The above-mentioned examples of organizational behavior management research advanced patient safety, proving a direct correlation between caregiver safety and patient safety.

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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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