Understanding Why OB Isn’t a Perfect Science

Introduction: Organizational Behavior (OB) as a Science


How we perceive of science: lots of stars; perfection

The social sciences face a difficult situation: Understand and explain how humans interact with each other (in addition to communicate their findings to colleagues). How do you possibly understand something that is affected by so many variables—and can’t even see any of it? You can’t see groupthink or hold it in your hands; it’s not tangible.

Now, the same is true of the biophysical sciences, but scientists have overcome this and made great strides in these sciences. You can’t really see gravity or a cell; they’re both still there though, just as groupthink is still there. How do they do it?

If you look at the list of variables affecting social behavior, you’d understand why social scientists do the same. Weather, hunger, tiredness, fatigue, mood, personality, attitudes, brain activity at any given time, first impressions, the sound of your voice, your looks, the clothing you wear, race, religion, ethnicity, how much wealth you have—the list is long. So just as chemists use standard temperature and pressure (STP), social scientists study phenomena by holding all those variables constant and change a given variable under those circumstances.

Economists use this practice all the time. If you ever took an economics course or if you’re an economist, you’ve heard of the term ceteris parabus, which means “all else equal.” That term captures exactly what social scientists do. They hold all other variables constant, then change only one given variable and make conclusions about their findings. For example, economists may take two people with only one characteristic that differentiates them and understand how they respond when both are given $5. The goal is to understand how, perhaps, ethnicity impacts what they choose to buy and determine their preferences.


Depiction of how the market changes when demand changes, ceteris parabus

Although not often discussed in organizational behavior (OB), something quite similar occurs. Because there are so many variables that determine an organization’s success, it is difficult to even try to study it. So OB breaks down an organization by making many, many assumptions. This blog entry will explore those assumptions. In addition, we will understand how those assumptions limit OB’s effectiveness and how you can compensate for that.

OB, the Science That Wasn’t Perfect

As we remember, OB is defined as the scientific study of how individuals work together toward shared goals. That is a very loaded statement. With that definition, we are essentially stating that an organization does not experience difficulties that prevent its success; it has the right employees, managers, structure, culture, vision, mission—you name it—that yield continuous, long-lasting, high performance. But by making that statement, we are assuming many things that ensure the organization’s success. Take a look:

Assumptions in OB

This is only a sampling of assumptions. I have intentionally left out many others so that you can add to this list.

Conclusion: Given the Limitations, What Do We Do?

Based on my review and evaluation of OB’s assumptions, you may think to yourself why I am such an advocate of the field. I mean, it’s pretty ironic that someone who absolutely loves the subject could be so critical of it. Still, I believe it has so much to offer. Why is that?

Well, the fact that I’m an advocate of the field is exactly the reason I criticize it. If I become too content with the logical foundations of the subject, then I may begin to consciously or unconsciously ignore its limitations. I can’t let myself do that. My goal is to continuously stay aware of the limitations of OB’s theories and its definition so that I know what OB can’t do.

For example, Theory X and Theory Y describe two ways in which a manager views his or her employees. Theory X states that managers believe they’re lazy, uninterested in working, unambitious, and only motivated by money. On the other hand, Theory Y states that managers believe they are ambitious and career-oriented, enjoy the work they do, and are intrinsically motivated. Theory X managers are typically well-suited for manufacturing lines, restaurants, secretarial work, and transportation; Theory Y for banking, government, and consulting.

The strength of Theory X and Theory Y is that it cleanly lays out the types of managers you can expect at work—and there are only two. How easy is that? But then you realize that organizations are not that simple. For example, managers may suddenly change their viewpoints on their workers. Although a Theory Y-oriented manager working as a management consultant started his or her work believing that the employees are intrinsically motivated, they may soon believe that the employees are really only motivated by money. They become cynical because they’ve worked so long in the industry. In addition, workers may change as well. An employee who starts off taking a job as a busboy may take his or her job for purely monetary purposes, but he or she soon comes to love his or her job after interacting with the customers and seeing what the hospitality industry is like.


Theories X and Y on different ends of a spectrum

These two theories are not simplistic; in fact, they make a manager’s work life easier by better understanding their work orientation and style. However, it is simplistic for us to take the theories at face-value. You need to understand the limitations of OB’s definition and its theories. By keeping that in-mind, you will compensate for its weaknesses yet still harness work psychology’s power in any given situation.

Published: 08/03/17, 18:00

Last Revised: 08/09/17, 16:58

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