The study of organisational behaviour ultimately looks at the people side of the organisation and does so in order to address how we can manage employees by looking at, and understanding why people act as they do in organisations. By looking at the interaction amongst the formal dynamics of the organisation and the people within it, organisational behaviour is concerned with the micro foundations: the importance of people, how they think, how they behave and the interactions they have with each other. Organisational behaviour draws on both managers and employee perspectives and does so to draw out the nature of the organisation as an inherently complex, messy and emotional place.
‘Organisational behaviour is concerned with the study of what people do in an organisation and how that behaviour affects the performance of the organisation’ (Robins, 1998: 9).
Organisational behaviour can be viewed as taking place at three, inter-related levels: the individual, the team and the organisational level. The focus of this chapter begins at the individual level where we look at the individual employee, their personality and the nature of communication. Attention is then directed towards decision-making, communication and power/politics which reside more at the organisational level. Throughout it is important to understand the role and impact the individual is having on organisational practices elsewhere.
Interest in personality has grown in recent years and this interest has stemmed from an appreciation of the need to understand employees, their motivations and their desires. The study of the individual is concerned with understanding why an individual acts as they do and, importantly can we predict how they might behave within an organisation or with other people? Underpinned by the study of psychology, at the individual level it is possible to study people, the mind and behaviour. Two of the most cited definitions of personality include Cronbach’s 1970 definition of personality ‘as one’s habits and usual styles, but also abilities to play roles’ and Allport’s definition ‘the dynamic organisation within the individual of those psychological systems that determine his unique adjustment to his environment’. What we can see here is that both these definitions encapsulate the importance of personality as something which shapes behaviour.
An understanding of different personality types in the workplace is important and supports the very understanding of individual employees and thus supports employers viewing their employees as valuable, intangible capabilities and not as simply cogs in the machine as we saw in descriptions of Taylorism in previous chapters. Individual personality has a lot to do with the way in which an individual behaves in the workplace and importantly may very well be an important factor in team work across the organisation. Understanding of one self’s personality is an important tool in order to draw on the fact that we all have our own individual personality make up which influences the behaviour and decisions you make. Understanding personality can for example help you to reduce conflict in the workplace by adjusting behaviour in situations where conflict could occur.
Whilst the theories discussed below view personality as being somewhat static and unchanged, it is necessary to note that whilst the personality make-up of an individual may not change, the expression of behaviour and the interpretation of behaviour can which is important for managers to then utilise within the firm.
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The study of personality is a complex topic and one, which comprises different perspectives thus requiring evaluation from different angles. Within the study of personality, two perspectives exist the nomothetic approach and the idiographic approach. The nomothetic approach is the dominant way of viewing personality which views personality as a quantifiable science by looking at examining traits. Traits can be defined as ‘a set of behavioural, emotional and cognitive tendencies that people display over time and across situations and that distinguish individuals from one another’ (Costa & McCrae, 1985: 22).
One of the central models of the nomothetic approach is the Five Factor Model designed by Costa and McCrae (1985). Within the Five Factor Model there are five personality traits which all reside within an individual and are noted as being:
- Openness to Experience
Extraversion is the tendency of an individual to be outgoing, and includes aspects such as warmth, assertiveness and excitement seeking. An extraverted individual for example might be someone who enjoys attending social events and regularly looks for opportunities to socialise.
Agreeableness refers to the levels of trust, compliance and modesty within an individual and is often considered to be a core trait needed to develop positive relationships with people.
Conscientiousness is measured by how dutiful, achievement striving and self-disciplined an individual is and is regularly associated with entrepreneurs.
Neuroticism is a trait which underpins an individual’s emotional stability and is measured by facets which include anxiety, angry hostility, depression and self-consciousness.
Openness to Experience includes an awareness of fantasy, feelings, ideas and values which reside within an individual. To date, this is the only trait which has been shown to be empirically linked to intelligence (Ashton, Lee, Vernon & Jang, 2000).
Under these traits, facets exist which offer an even more detailed interpretation of an individual’s personality which make up the larger traits you see above. The nomothetic approach to personality can be summarised as:
- Shaped around personality traits arranged into a measurable framework.
- Personality itself being viewed as measurable.
- Personality traits which are quantifiable in nature.
- Personality as a fixed entity.
The nomothetic approach has value, as it is applicable to organisations due to its efficient way of capturing the personality profiles of individual employees. By quantifiably measuring personality it is possible to ascertain if an individual has a low, average or high level of a given trait which can be useful when matching employees within a working team. This efficient manner of viewing personality has made personality and the study of such translatable into the workplace which has built an important bridge between theory and practice.
Ideographic conceptualisations of personality approach personality from a more tacit open to interpretation examination of an individual’s personality. The idiographic approach views personality as something which cannot be measured in a quantitative manner and instead, the personality of an individual needs to be examined in a social setting thus opening up the nature versus nurture debate. Using research methods such as interviews and observations, the idiographic perspective offers a broader approach to personality which views personality as being a fluid entity which cannot be fixed or tied down.
The two approaches which exist to personality: the nomothetic and the idiographic both view personality in a different way and this can be argued to result in a particular trade-off. For example, the more time that is available the richer the picture we are able to gain of an individual which may for example allow for the individuals personality to be ascertained through detailed appraisals and interviews. When less time is available, more efficient tools have to be used and thus whilst they may result in a more abstract appraisal of an individual they are a valuable tool within large organisations.
The idiographic approach to personality can be summarised as:
- Personality is complex and dynamic and simply cannot be reduced to quantifiable traits.
- Nurture and our social environment shape the personality we have
- Personalities develop and are not static in nature.
Think about you. What influences in your own life do you think have influenced your personality?
Hint: think about your family, upbringing, school etc.
The idiographic approach is the less dominant of the two approaches to personality and this stems from its lack of validity/empirical testing. Freud developed his work on the idiographic approach to personality within clinical settings and as such this approach lends itself less well to the workplace. Workplaces are efficient and time short institutions and as a result, the idiographic approach is not as feasible as the more measured, nomothetic approach which allows for an efficient collection of data. Further, by moving away from statistics and a clear interpretation of traits, under the idiographic approach, the interpretation of personality is more open to bias which can therefore further fuel personality being viewed as something which is ambiguous and intangible in nature.
The core idea underpinning the work of Jung is the importance of ego and the way in which mental activities are carried out. Jung identified that when we are awake our minds are alternating between taking in information and making decisions and how we carry out these activities resides across eight mental processes. Patterns were created where opposite pairs were established:
- Extraversion and Introversion
- Perceiving and Judging
Extraversion and introversion play a core and central role within Jung’s typology. Extraverts can be typified as those who engage with people and actively gain energy from being in a social situation. What Jung considers the opposite is introverts who may prefer to work alone and find social events drain energy. When analysing the two, Jung concluded that introverts were the more stable and reliable of the two oppositions.
A further tool for the analysis of personality is the Myers-Briggs type indicator which is one of the most widely used tools to ascertain personality differences. Underpinned by basic patterns of human personality, the Myers Briggs type indicator allows for individuals to determine the ‘type’ they are which then allows them to focus upon their own personal performance, self-awareness in both individual and team-placed settings. The Myer’s Brigg questionnaire builds on the typology developed by Carl Jung and is thus an empirical measurement which brings this to life through a series of self-rated statements.
Psychometric testing is a term which describes those tools used to measure differences which exist between people. Two types of psychometric tests exist. The first test covers ability and is used to measure an individual’s cognitive ability including numerical and verbal resonating. The second area includes personality assessments which consist of self-report personality questionnaires in order to describe an individual’s psychometric capability.
What do you think are the benefits or using psychometric tests in the workplace?
Personality tests are self-reports - can you see any challenges of collecting data in this way?
Psychometric testing can be used in the workplace and is regularly used as part of recruitment activities within the firm. Its value is however only beneficial if a firm uses this as part of their decision-making and not as a conclusive tool to base all decisions.
Psychometric tests can be used in order to seek out the desirable personality characteristics which may be required to fill a particular vacancy. Such desirable personality characteristics may for example be determined by the job role itself and so if the role was one shaped around networking and social events the trait of extraversion may be prioritised over a more introvert candidate. It is however important to note that personality is one aspect of an individual and that for a true reflection of an individual there is a need to support psychometric tests with other evaluation tools e.g. face to face interview, trial shift.
Communication is a central facet of the workplace and communication in organisations is multi-faceted in nature. Various features of communication exist which include both formal and informal channels of communication. The focus of communication is to promote synchronicity and organisational effectiveness within the firm. Formal forms of communication include those channels of communication evident in organisational charts e.g. the communication flow from the owner/manager to employees within the company. Informal lines of communication also exist and include those social relations which exist within the firm e.g. conversations with colleagues, social gatherings.
Channels of communication can take various forms including:
In line with these channels of communication, the focus of communication is important. This focus may take place on the one-to-one level which may exist between a supervisor and an employee. Focus may also take place one-to-many which would include the communicating of a vision from the top management team to employees within the organisation. Additional forms of focus include many-to-many and many-to-one.
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Communication and power are inter-related and interestingly it has been showed by Nichols (1962) that only 20% of the original message from the top gets translated to the bottom of the organisation. Noise can therefore disrupt communication at each point which influences the message. We all operate within relationships where at some point the power balance is uneven and as a result of this communication can be affected. For example; you may be working within a group team when one member is dominating group discussions leaving you to keep your opinions to yourself. If we feel we have less power we might decide to not say what we want to say and this can impact upon the quality of communication within a relationship. If on the other hand, you have the power in the relationship you may make assumptions or dictate a strategy without listening to someone else around you. One of the central premises of any discussion of power and communication is that imbalances are a natural part of organisational life and under a particular organisational structure power relations exist. For example, it is likely at some point in your career you will have to report to someone above you.
In the last decade technology has greatly influenced the nature of communication within the workplace and in doing so technology has enhanced the efficiency of communication. Smartphones, emails and video conferencing have all altered the ways in which we are able to communicate and as a natural by-product of this barriers are being removed.
How do you think technology has changed communication in the workplace?
As a result of increased technology a new medium of communication has been created and therefore technology can be viewed as a medium through which organisations operate. Organisations as a result of technology are no longer bounded and instead their geographical reach is heightened. Teleworking and telecommuting for example have created a situation where the boundaries are blurred between organisations thus facilitating a change in communication. This, as discussed in later chapters may have an implication for work/life balance due to the boundaries between work and home life being increasingly blurred e.g. checking work emails at home.
Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse and as a result employees will often have to work with other employees who are from a different cultural background or who perhaps don’t speak the same language. Language barriers can make it difficult for relationships to exist and importantly may restrict the message being delivered or the ability to give performance feedback to employees. Therefore despite the value of diversity being widely seen across organisations, there is a need to also consider the challenges such diversity can result in. A commonality in language is often needed to clearly communicate and there needs to be an appreciation for cultural differences to ensure that an individual is not offended by a certain conversation.
Decision-making is the very process of identifying a decision by largely assessing different and alternative resolutions/courses of actions. Decision-making is valuable within the firm as it supports the firm’s ability to evaluate strategic courses of action. The study of decision making looks at the cognitive processes of an individual and does so in order to understand the ways in which an individual makes a decision. Decisions within an organisation can be made by a single leader or may be made by a group of individuals all of which is dependent upon the type and nature of the organisation. The very nature of communication in the organisation is inter-linked with decision-making processes within the firm. When communication is effective, decision-making improves facilitating organisational effectiveness.
Tied up within the very process of decision making is an appreciation of risk with risk regularly being considered as being difficult to isolate away from the decision making process. May be for the majority of decisions the level of risk is relatively low, however, there may be situations where risk implications are high and thus a more detailed cognitive appraisal needs to take place. Linking this back to personality, some individuals may be more risk adverse than others which naturally influences the decision making process.
Decision making processes are increasingly becoming a meeting of minds where collective decision making processes are undertaken with the hope that this will draw on the value of the social relations which exist within an organisation. For example, in a difficult, dynamic environment, a group of individuals may come together to make an informed decision which draws on various perspectives. This relates to the work of the psychologist Kurt Lewin who argued that individuals were more likely to change a habit or routine if they discussed the subject with others rather than relying on self-learning. As a result of this move towards group decision making largely fuelled by a shift towards team work and the involvement of stakeholders, increased attention has been directed towards the value of group decision making.
Heuristics in decision-making are the simple and efficient rules which people use to make decisions. Heuristics can often be viewed as shortcuts where a complex problem is focused upon in order to address one aspect. Heuristics may be based on very little information and yet as supported by research are often correct. The use of heuristics allows for an individual to evaluate alternative courses in decision-making and thus heuristics reduce the need to store large amounts of information and instead heuristics promote speed.
Psychological bias can exist within decision-making and an individual awareness of such has to take place to ensure that bias can be limited as part of any decision making process. Bias refers to a tendency to have a pre-conceived judgment which could perhaps see you jumping to a decision without considering all of the evaluative evidence. To avoid psychological bias there is a need to approach the decision making process in a logical manner which therefore moves away from the illogical processes tied up with bias. Bias for example could include you feeling subconsciously pressurised into making a decision by someone. Moving away from bias within the decision making process supports clarity and also creates an environment where poor decision making is avoided. Two central biases are explored in more detail below:
- Confirmation Bias
This often happens in market research where as soon as you perhaps hear the information you want you exclude other opinions and other information. You may for example be wanting confirmation that your product is good and so you reject any information from potential consumers which goes against what you believe. In turn, confirmation bias reduces the logical rounded approach to decisions which is valued.
Anchoring is a type of bias which occurs when you may be under pressure to make a quick decision and so you act hastily based on limited information. In order to avoid this type of bias there is a need to think about the information you have and to give yourself time to understand other perspectives and information.
The discussion of bias requires an appreciation of the individual and the self and the need for individuals to recognise the damaging effects bias may have within the decision making process. It is therefore important for individuals to have both the time and resources to make decisions so as to ensure that the quality of decisions being made within the firm is improved. This is particularly important when we consider the ethical implications of rushed, poorly made decisions! In order to overcome bias and to support an effective decision making process there is a need to think about asking yourself a number of questions which may include:
What sources of information have I used to make this decision?
How has that information been gathered?
Do I have enough time to make an informed decision?
Think about someone you know in a position of power. Identify why this person has power, where does this power come from?
Power is situational and as such is a very abstract concept, which means different things to different people. To understand power there is a need to identify why it is that some individuals within the firm have power and how power within the organisation may very well be a reflection of the organisation itself. All power is used within a particular context and to some extent the influence of power depends on the individual it resides within. As a result of the context within which power arises, organisational politics exist which require consideration and examination.
Two definitions of power are first provided:
‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’ (Dahl, 1957).
‘The capacity of an individual or group to modify the conduct of other individuals or groups in a manner which they desire and without having to modify their own conduct in a manner which they do not desire’ (Tawney, 1931: 229).
Both these definitions begin to introduce the concept and can be used to shape our understanding as to what power means. To understand what power is there is a need to focus on the key words of influence, control and manipulation. However power is defined and the context within which it emerges, it is important to consider the role of possession and how power acts as a central feature of organisational life. Due however to its ambiguous and somewhat intangible nature, there is little consensus surrounding what power is despite the fact it exists all around us.
The below table outlines some examples of how power may be seen in action in the workplace
Knowing where influence lies. Forming connections and relationships with information gatekeepers or those in positions of power.
Power struggles at different hierarchal levels e.g. a supervisor battling for power against their manager.
Power in numbers, group power e.g. union activity.
Various different contextual sources exist which are identified within this chapter. Office politics is powerful and one area which can result in a difficult working environment under the context of organisational culture. Whilst office politics can take many forms ultimately the activities which take place within the organisation which rely on working out who is powerful influence the nature and power of office politics. For example, shifting responsibility or getting in with the ‘in crowd’ within an organisation could be deemed as playing a political game within the organisation.
Politics and power within the organisation can occur for various reasons some of which are listed below:
- Difference of opinion
- Career advancement
- Personal desire for power
- Labour struggles e.g. resistance to change
- Unequal access to opportunities or resources
The occurrence of office politics can be detrimental to the individual wellbeing of an employee and at a more organisational level the implications can be vast including the creation of a competitive workplace and the organisation being pictured as a site of contestation. However, as part of this it is also possible to view politics as being an essential part of organisational life.
An individuals’ formal role of power and where they are situated within the firm can be seen from a firm’s organisational structure. This is a formal position of where power exists within the firm.
Those who hold positions of power have knowledge and this relates to a common conception that knowledge is power. People in certain positions may become information gatekeepers and may be able to use this power to establish relationships within the firm and the flow of information from one individual to another.
There are various misconceptions about power and this chapter will now discuss two misconceptions: the first the direction of which power flows and the second how hidden power emerges within the firm. Power within the organisation is often considered to be synonymous with the formal organisational structure of the firm and there is a common misconception that power is exercised downward. However power can exist throughout the organisation and increased attention is being directed towards encouraging employees to exert power upwards within the organisation.
Power is not always visible within an organisation and consequentially hidden power is potent within the organisation. People who keep power hidden might be one step ahead of their opposition and people might have hidden power within the firm and use this to promote change.
In order to deal with power and politics there is a need to examine the levels at which power may exist. At the executive level e.g. Chief Executives and their Top Management Teams power is likely to reside and is used to set the overall strategic direction of the company. By setting these overall policies, a bottom down approach to power is illustrated where the strategic direction stems from those at the top. Here, it is important to think not only about the benefits of having vision from the top but also the employee implications of having little say in decision-making.
Power also resides at managerial level where operational/doing decisions are made. A manager might for example have power over individual career progression, or may have the power to allocate work. This in turn differs to power of workers where workers themselves may have specialist knowledge which is unable to be replicated by managers and workers have the power to implement any requests from above. This worker power can be both a force for positive and for negative dependent upon situation for example; workers may choose to withhold information or resist control from those in higher positions of authority.
Moving away from people interpretations of power, other forms of power can also be considered to exist notably technological and systematic. Technological power refers to how technology is increasingly shaping work practices and how machines and technology within the workplace set the pace and nature of work. For example, if your emails went down at work how would you be able to communicate? Systematic power also exists which is where wider social forces influence and hold power over organisations e.g. economic climate and the job market. It is therefore important to examine and think of power within a wider context than the organisation alone.
In order to examine the theoretical basis upon which power emerges within the firm, the work of Michel Foucault can be used. Foucault argued that power was not a possession but was instead something which was exercised and thus fundamentally based upon relationships. The very nature of what is considered normal is underpinned by power which surrounds all aspects of life. Foucauldian examples of power exists all around us with some examples listed in the table below.
University timetables, gym timetables.
Rows in a classroom, rows of seating in a doctor’s waiting room.
Systems of writing
Form filling, bureaucracy and paperwork.
Power and authority go hand-in-hand in the workplace and as a result there is a need to look at those studies which have supported our understanding of power and authority.
Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford prison experiment is a famous experiment where a mock jail was created in order to examine and understand how roles of power and authority are played out. Volunteer participants were randomly assigned roles with individuals either adopting the role of prisoner or of warden. Each volunteer was then paid to act out the role they had been assigned. During the course of the experiment, guards showed sadistic behaviour with the powerful role they had aligning to individual perceptions of power. As a result within this environment prisoners become depressed and somewhat stressed yet showed a true commitment to the acceptance of power from those in a position of authority.
The implications of the study showed a willingness to accept authority which shows how in a workplace setting individuals accept authority even if it perhaps goes against their own individual thoughts of moral reasoning. As a result, the Stanford prison experiment showed the emergence of the subservient attitude which can be used to understand how power can be ill-used within the organisation within which it exists.
Go and look into the Stanford prison experiment in more detail. What is your opinion of this experiment? How does it show how power is played out?
We have looked at a variety of organisational behaviour issues which can be applied to a range of organisational settings and in doing so we have highlighted the importance of the individual in the workplace.
The personality of an individual is important and understanding here allows for behaviour to be examined and hopefully predicted within the firm. At this individual level, we need to be able to measure personality and therefore psychometric tests have a variety of tools which can be used. Such tools must however be approached with caution to ensure they are not used to solely base decisions on an individual’s capability. This is due to what we know about an individual being so much more than their personality alone.
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Attention here has also been directed towards power, decision-making and communication within the organisation. Power resides within individuals and is played out across the firm, yet as discussed here shows itself in various ways including those notably influenced by technological changes. As such, it is important to consider how power can be managed and how ill-advised power relationships may impact such things as employee wellbeing, satisfaction and motivation explored in the next chapter.
Fontana, D. (2000). Personality in the Workplace. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
King, D, Lawley (2016) Organisational Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and individual differences, 13(6), pp. 653-665.
Townley, B. (1993). Foucault, power/knowledge, and its relevance for human resource management. Academy of Management review, 18(3), pp. 518-545.
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