Organizational Behavior

As we move through our careers, if we’re successful (and maybe even if we’re not) we will continue to encounter unique situations and problems which we haven’t encountered before. Whether that’s managing a difficult individual, or navigating organizational change, or engaging in M&A for the first time, or managing across cultural boundaries for the first time, ultimately, we run into something that hasn’t been covered in school, or in the books we’ve read, or in our personal experience.

My friend and mentor, Ed, told me the following. Every year, Harvard surveys the graduating MBA class about which courses they thought were most valuable. Invariably, individuals select courses in some specific practice — marketing, finance, whatever. Ten years on, the school goes back and resurveys the cohort. Again invariably, those surveyed say that their organizational behavior classes were the most important.

Wikipedia provides a useful historical view of organizational behavior:

…the Greek philosopher Plato, for example, wrote about the essence of leadership, emphasized the importance of specialization and discussed a primordial form of incentive structures in speculating how to get people to embody the goal of the just city in The Republic. Aristotle also addressed such topics as persuasive communication. The writings of 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli laid the foundation for contemporary work on organizational power and politics. In 1776, Adam Smith advocated a new form of organizational structure based on the division of labour. One hundred years later, German sociologist Max Weber wrote about rational organizations and initiated discussion of charismatic leadership. Soon after, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the systematic use of goal setting and rewards to motivate employees. In the 1920s, Australian-born Harvard professor Elton Mayo and his colleagues conducted productivity studies at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant in the United States.

No matter where you are in your management career, these ideas and questions should be foremost in your thinking. Whether you’re the manager of a small team, the leader of a global enterprise, or an entrepreneur, the most important thing you can do is ensure that your people are functioning effectively. In order to do this, you need to have them all motivated to move in the same direction. Part of that is charismatic leadership, part of that is power and politics, and it’s ultimately all about motivation.

Unfortunately, the breadth of situations encountered by managers span too wide a berth for me to provide any easy insights into specifics for your specific practice. Worse, if you go research this topic elsewhere, most of the writings you will find are of an academic nature. The conversion from academics to practice is not necessarily an easy task. About the best you can do is go read the works of those quoted above, some of the other works I’ve previously recommended, and the works of Peter Drucker.

And you should go read all of those things. But if you’re a smart manager (which presumably you are), then you can likely reach reasonable conclusions about the actions you should take if you focus your thinking a little bit. Start by thinking about continual, organizational change. An organization must evolve over time. It will have to deal with changing competitive landscape, absorbing or contending with new technologies, adapting to changes in the market place — whether that be local economic conditions, or expansion into new markets, and many, many other changes. To grow and navigate these changes successfully requires an organization that is capable of continual change. And in order to be capable of continual change, you have to have employees that are motivated to changes in the direction you need to go. For that matter, you need employees who can identify those required changes on their own and communicate them and drive them through the organization. You can’t do everything on your own. So, you need to think about how you motivate your staff. In order to get there, before you start thinking about what needs to change, think about how you motivate your employees. You need to contemplate the humanistic values of your staff. These become the core values of your organization. To get to core values, it’s useful to ponder the following:

  • how do you provide opportunities for people to function as human beings rather than as resources in the productive process;
  • what opportunities are there for each organization member, as well as for the organization itself, to develop to his full potential;
  • how do you increase the effectiveness of the organization in terms of all of its goals;
  • are you creating an environment in which it is possible to find exciting and challenging work;
  • are you providing opportunities for people in organizations to influence the way in which they relate to work, the organization, and the environment; and,
  • do you treat each human being as a person with a complex set of needs, all of which are important in his work and in his life?

If you start by ensuring that your core values address those questions, then you’ll be setting yourself up for successful change, and agents of change will present themselves within the organization and drive your business forward.

Once your core values are defined, you can start to contemplate organizational design. It’s tempting to go the other direction, to draw an org chart before you think about values, but that really is backwards. If you do it that way, you’re setting yourself up to reinvent the wheel, and not in a good way. Define your organizational core values first, then let those drive your organizational design. Let them inform the alignment of structure, process, rewards, metrics and talent with the strategy of the business.

If your core values are right, then your organizational behavior will naturally lead to proper leadership, and all of the things that derive from it: strategy, knowledge management, environmental change, and so on.

Here’s to prosperity in all you do!

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