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Organizational behaviour Part I: what is it and why is it important for employers?


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Organizational behaviour has been defined as the field of study that investigates the impact that individuals, groups and structures have on behaviour within organizations, particularly workplaces, in order to improve the organization’s effectiveness. But is it important for employers to understand organizational behaviour?

There might be many reasons, but one is to improve management skills by predicting and influencing behaviour in employment situations.

The study of organizational behaviour examines how the following variables affect productivity, absenteeism, turnover and job satisfaction:

  • Individual-level variables:
    • Biographical characteristics, personality, ability and learning
    • Perception and individual decision making
    • Values and attitudes
    • Motivation
  • Group-level variables:
    • How group members are influenced by expected patterns of behaviour
    • What are considered acceptable patterns of behaviour
    • The degree to which group members are attracted to each other
  • Organizational variables:
    • Structural design
    • Human resource policies and practices
    • Work stress levels
    • Internal culture

Employers try to understand and manipulate these variables in order to generate increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, lower turnover and higher job satisfaction.

Let’s take a look at the first of the individual-level variables: personality, ability and learning.


Personality is the sum total of ways an individual reacts and interacts with others, depending on factors such as heredity, environment and context. Personality traits are enduring characteristics that describe an individual’s behaviour, which can be grouped into various personality types. Understanding the personality traits of an employee can aid in reducing hiring mismatches, reducing turnover and increasing job satisfaction. Employers must acknowledge that certain personalities are more suited to some jobs than others. What’s more, employers can seek certain personality traits that are generally associated with job success and satisfaction, and thus make better hiring selections.

For example, one interesting personality trait is locus of control, the degree to which people believe they are masters of their own fate. Those with an internal locus of control believe they control what happens to them. Those with an external locus of control believe that what happens to them is controlled by outside forces such as luck or chance. Research has shown that individuals with an external locus of control are less satisfied and involved with their jobs and have higher rates of absenteeism. “Externals” tend to be dissatisfied with their jobs since they feel they have little control over organizational outcomes that are important to them. However, externals are more compliant and follow directions more easily; in fact, externals tend to excel in jobs that are well-structured.

Contrastingly, “internals” attribute organizational outcomes to their own actions, and are more likely to quit a dissatisfying job to find one they enjoy. Moreover, since internals believe they control their health through proper habits, they tend to have lower rates of illness and absenteeism. Furthermore, internals are more motivated to achieve, and try harder to control their environment. As a result, they perform well on sophisticated tasks in managerial or professional jobs. Internals are also drawn to jobs where they can take initiative and act independently. Since they continually strive to improve, they require challenge, immediate feedback and responsibility (control over results) in order to perform at a high level.


Ability is an individual’s capacity to perform the tasks involved in a job. Ability directly influences an employee’s level of performance and satisfaction through the ability-job fit. An effective selection process can ensure a better ability-job fit: employers must perform a job analysis to identify the particular abilities required to perform a job successfully, and subsequently test, interview and evaluate job candidates to determine if they possess the required abilities. The ability-job fit can be tweaked over time through job promotions, internal transfers and fine-tuning a job to bring out the employee’s specific strengths. Employers can also provide training to ensure their employees’ abilities remain current.

Individuals can have various types of abilities—intellectual or physical—which may or may not be necessary for job success and ability-job fit. Generally, the higher an employee rises in an organization’s hierarchy, the more general intelligence and verbal abilities are required to perform the job successfully. However, a high IQ may be important in jobs where an employee must exercise some discretion, but it is not as predictive in routine jobs where there is little opportunity to exercise discretion. On the other hand, tests that assess verbal, numerical, spatial and perceptual abilities are strong predictors of job proficiency across all types of jobs.

Other aspects of intellectual ability include perceptual speed, inductive reasoning and verbal comprehension. Conversely, some jobs require physical abilities such as strength, flexibility, coordination, balance and stamina. The employer must find a way to identify which abilities are most important to perform a certain job within the organization, and find a candidate that has those abilities.


Learning is any permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience. Can learning concepts provide us with any insights that can explain and predict behaviour at work? Absolutely. In fact, conditioning and shaping are important tools for explaining levels of productivity, absenteeism rates, lateness and quality of work. Most importantly from an employer’s perspective, learning strategies can help eliminate undesirable behaviours at work.

There are a few different learning theories that apply in the employment context. Let’s take a look at social learning. People can learn through observation and respond to how they perceive and define consequences, not necessarily by consequences to themselves. For instance, an employee might learn that it is unacceptable to dress informally for meetings with customers in the office because a co-worker was warned not to wear an informal outfit during such a meeting.

Additionally, shaping systematically reinforces each successive step that moves an individual closer to a desired response. There are four ways to shape behaviour:

  • Positive reinforcement – a behaviour is followed with something pleasant (e.g., a boss praises an employee for a job well done)
  • Negative reinforcement – a behaviour is followed by the withdrawal of something unpleasant (e.g., a boss removes an undesirable work task from the employee and reassigns it after a job well done on a major project)
  • Punishment – a behaviour is followed by something unpleasant (e.g., an employee is disciplined for not following safety procedures prior to using equipment)
  • Extinction – a behaviour is followed by the elimination of any reinforcement (e.g., a manager stops praising an employee’s work; over time, the desired behaviour will cease)

There are also various schedules of reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement means that a desired behaviour is reinforced each and every time it is displayed. Intermittent reinforcement means that a desired behaviour is reinforced often enough to make the behaviour worth repeating, but not every single time the behaviour is displayed. For instance, an employee’s biweekly paycheque is an example of fixed-interval reinforcement. Praise from a boss every five times a project is completed successfully is an example of fixed-ratio reinforcement.

How can employers use the learning models to their advantage? Take the example of significant absenteeism in the workplace: in addition to disciplining for chronic culpable lateness (punishment), it is important to positively reinforce coming to work on time every day. For instance, a quarterly lottery, in which the names of all employees who came to work on time and had no culpable absences were put in a draw to win a prize, would positively reinforce employees on a variable-ratio schedule (a positive result would occur following a varied number of good attendances). Studies have shown that punishment alone is not as effective in eliminating undesirable behaviours compared to positive reinforcement of the opposite desirable behaviour.

Stay tuned to the next part in the series where I examine other individual level variables such as perception, values, and motivation!

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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