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Organizational Behavior and the Learning Process

In the past, employees focused on producing faster and making their actions more uniform. Today, people are powerful resources to leverage for success. A learning culture can help support critical creativity.

November 2, 2004
Related Topics: Measurement, Metrics, E-Learning, Learning Delivery, Measurement

It was not that many decades ago when businesses viewed people as machines. During the Industrial Age, the little attention that employees did receive was focused on speeding production, mechanizing human movement and ensuring a consistent product. Business leaders wanted employees to follow orders and suppress any individuality. Today, we recognize that people are not machines, but powerful resources who help a business succeed. Most of us realize the importance of creativity and innovation in our respective industries and how significant people are in making our businesses successful.

Starting in 1927, a professor from Harvard University undertook a series of studies to determine how variations in lighting and humidity produced differing levels of employee productivity in a manufacturing plant. When the light increased, productivity went up. Since rules of effective research dictated testing more than one condition, the experimenters also decreased the intensity of the lights. Again, productivity improved. Similar studies were conducted with humidity and later with psychological aspects, such as group pressure, leadership style and working hours. Regardless of the variable that was manipulated, productivity was shown to increase. The key discovery in this series of studies was not which conditions most maximized productivity. Rather, the studies eventually concluded that the productivity of workers increased simply because the researchers were paying attention to them (and showing interest in them). The insights gained from these studies changed the development of organizational leadership. The researchers learned that productivity could be maximized when employees felt as though their needs were being considered by receiving attention for their work. This phenomenon became known as the Hawthorne Effect. It is as true today as it was during the last century that paying attention to our human assets produces tremendous results.

Southwest Airlines has learned to capitalize on the principles of the Hawthorne Effect. Since the company's inception in 1971, it has been committed to employee input. In an industry plagued with business failures, it is staggering to reflect on how Southwest Airlines has consistently remained at the top of its industry, while placing a dogmatic focus on employees' feedback and needs. Southwest seeks to share the company's success with its employees. The airline encourages employee ownership by offering the chance to purchase company stock at 90 percent of the market value, while covering all broker fees.

Another discovery about human behavior came in the 1960s from Douglas McGregor. Most of the management techniques at that time involved careful monitoring of employee work to ensure that they were not wasting time on the job or stealing from the company. McGregor illustrated that there was another way to view people�from a viewpoint he called Theory Y. When we see people from a Theory Y perspective, we believe that they inherently enjoy work and want to do a good job. Instead of carefully monitoring their actions, we are focused on the good they can bring in the areas of problem-solving, innovating, finding new opportunities and developing new approaches.

Early management pioneers introduced to us the power we have when we are able to leverage human potential. However, humans are amazingly complex, and it is never easy to determine the best ways to capitalize on a person�s strengths. As learning professionals, we are often asked to contribute more than just individual results. Often, we are responsible for improving the organization as a whole. With the differences that exist between the employees in the organization, complexity is compounded exponentially.

In addition to the individual learning that occurs each day within our companies, there is also organizational learning that occurs. Our cultures, practices and psychological and intellectual makeup all add up to learning that occurs beyond the individual level. The learning culture that we create can result either in some very positive or some very negative results, depending on what we teach and reinforce. Organizational behavior shapes patterns of behavior and overall perspective within the organization more than any individual could on his or her own.

Consider an organization that communicates to its employees that they are the most valuable company assets and that their development is critical to the company�s success. If the same company does not invest time or money in employee development, a clear message is sent that the corporate value statement is simply for show. When an organization states that high performance is rewarded, but promotions seem to occur based on political clout, employees inevitably discover the ways to really get ahead in the company.

If they are not addressed, these learned behavior patterns are a detriment to an organization, holding it back from achieving its potential. Such patterns also cause the company to falter when it comes to maintaining the levels of innovation required to thrive in today�s economy.

Letting Hierarchy Trump Organizational Intelligence
Hierarchy often gets a bad rap, without an appropriate organizational replacement. It makes sense for team members to understand that they are accountable and to have an established team leader who is responsible for the group�s results. However, a hierarchy that creates fear for those who report to the manager can be one of the quickest ways to sacrifice the power of the human brain.

I recently worked with a company that had a very power-hungry manager. I spoke with some of this manager�s subordinates about their work experiences, and they all expressed some level of intimidation. Once they understood that I was not there to get them fired or spy on the organization, they came forward with a number of wonderful ideas on how to improve their daily work. When I inquired as to whether they had ever told anyone about their ideas, they confessed that they had felt it was better just to wait until they were asked.

Letting Position Power Dominate Empowerment
Hierarchy, taken to its extreme, sets up a false expectation that those at the top always possess the best ideas to improve business results. The title on one�s business card, rather than the quality of the idea itself, tends to dictate which ideas get implemented. Executives in an environment such as this increasingly lose touch with true business realities, as they reinforce a culture that honors titles above all else in the organization, despite how poor the decisions of senior managers may be.

All too often, employees in such environments end up implementing ideas that they do not support. When we attempt to force someone to do something they consciously or unconsciously oppose, we decrease that person�s motivation to accomplish the goal. If we spend a great deal of time specifying how something should be done, instead of simply stating the overall objective, we can create a situation where employees do not buy into the process, resulting in lower productivity or even failure.

Success is not simply getting employees to follow directions, but empowering employees to invest themselves in the outcome. Using this approach, employees are more likely to take personal responsibility for overcoming the inevitable obstacles in any project, instead of abandoning hope.

Letting Urgency Reign Over Longer-Term Problem-Solving
When we allow ourselves to simply react to every situation, we become oblivious to clear and simple solutions that are sometimes obvious to those outside the organization. Time should be invested in lessening the sense of unreasonable urgency and determining other options and opportunities.

Even in low-level positions, employees should invest at least 10 percent of their time into planning activities that will help them be more proactive and less reactive. This percentage will increase substantially with the employee�s level of management responsibility. However, even employees at the lowest levels of an organization create value by planning their daily goals, participating in cross-training activities and making time to communicate effectively with colleagues.

Letting Pride Supersede Results
All too often, egos get in the way of achieving the greatest possible results, especially when individuals are placed in leadership positions that are highly competitive. When looking better than your peers or subordinates is more important than returning solid results, a pattern of behavior grows that can have devastating effects on productivity.

Changing Destructive Organizational Behavior Patterns
Almost all organizations possess some aspect of at least one of the detrimental patterns described above. As an organization grows or encounters drastic change, there are bound to be bumps along the road. As learning professionals, we have a strong responsibility to identify problem patterns and to champion more effective patterns of behavior. Too much emphasis on hierarchy can be transformed into an empowered organization with strong leaders. Management teams who rely on power and use fear-based techniques can be transformed into leaders who use positive influence to get initiatives accomplished. A company that constantly fights fires can be transformed into one that focuses on long-term objectives. Even managers who focus more on their own pride than organizational results can be transformed into results-oriented leaders who derive inspiration from others� successes.

A company�s culture determines a lot of the organization�s behavior. An organization�s culture is comprised of its beliefs, values and assumptions, which shape the individual�s behavior within the organization. A culture may be strong (having a dramatic influence over an individual�s behavior) or weak (having a relatively low impact on behavior).

Wal-Mart is known for its strong corporate culture, first established by Founder Sam Walton, who opened his first dime store in 1945. Having come a long way from its meager beginnings, Wal-Mart generated more than $250 billion in annual revenue during the past year. Wal-Mart�s mission focuses on allowing people who are not wealthy to acquire the same or similar goods as the rich. Wal-Mart�s dominance in its industry and its culture of discipline allow it to demand rock-bottom prices from suppliers and ensures product quality for customers.

Wal-Mart�s No. 1 value is a commitment to business. Walton conveyed to thousands of employees how he was able to overcome many of his mistakes and shortcomings due to his strong passion and commitment to the business. He also reminds employees that money and perks only go so far, whereas true appreciation and gratitude for what employees bring to the business stretch much further. The company�s emphasis on what it calls �aggressive hospitality� has been one of the driving forces in its ability to be the top performer in a competitive marketplace.

As learning professionals, we have the capacity to strengthen our company culture, if it contributes to our company�s competitiveness. We also can initiate actions that will facilitate a culture change if our organization�s culture is detrimental to the long-term success of the company.

A Model for Change
We have the ability to influence positive cultural changes. If we view our jobs as more than delivering training programs and take the responsibility to make learning permeate the organization, we can directly drive our companies� success. There are hundreds of change models that have been published by experts around the world. The common elements among all change models are to determine where you are, where you want to be and how you�re going to get there:


  • Assess: The first phase of initiating change is to define the starting point. It is important to examine those parts of the business that can be measured (such as quality metrics and revenue figures), but it is also important to take into account those aspects of your culture and values that cannot be easily measured. Getting employees involved at every level is important throughout the change process. However, their involvement at this stage is particularly critical, so that management does not end up subscribing to false beliefs based on strong egos or emotions.
  • Describe the Ideal Outcome: The next step in the process is to describe a vision of the future for the company. Most companies describe their vision in terms of future market share or revenue growth. A vision can be much more powerful for every individual in the organization if it extends beyond such competitive measures. Visions that align with each employee�s sense of purpose will begin to bridge the gap between organizational success and employee empowerment.
  • Determine Ways to Achieve the Ideal Outcome: Create several methods for accomplishing your objectives. At this point, do not spend time evaluating each idea, because even bad ideas can generate fantastic ones. Precious little time is spent using our creative selves in the business world. Unleashed creativity and the ability to consider new ideas can result in success stories like eBay, Tivo and
  • Encourage Debate on Potential Courses of Action: It is paramount at this stage to facilitate a culture of conflict. Each potential course of action should have a number of people working to debate its validity and a number of people communicating the opportunities it presents. Titles should be left at the door so an atmosphere is created where differences of opinion are celebrated.
  • Establish Mechanisms for Measuring and Rewarding Success: In order to execute a plan, you must determine how you will know if you are succeeding. Companies tend to fall into one of two extremes when it comes to measurement. Either they are led by analytical individuals and measure down to the most esoteric of statistics, or else they do not even bother to measure the most fundamental of success metrics. For each of your goals, you should have a clear, yet simple, way of assessing if you are hitting the mark.
  • Create an Implementation Plan: After the healthy debate has taken place and the best ideas have emerged, it is time to create an implementation plan. The plan should consist of goals that are specific, measurable, realistic, have a deadline and establish individual and team ownership and accountability. Each department in the company should set individual plans that align with the overall goals, so that each resource in the company is harmoniously focused on achieving the same overall results.
  • Develop Contingency Plans: Having a solid plan can be a real asset in achieving your goals. However, all too often, things go wrong that were not anticipated during the planning process. Precious time can be lost as a new plan must be created to deal with new obstacles. We have the capacity to predict some of the aspects of our plans that could go wrong and determine ways to handle a change in course down the road. These plans do not have to be as detailed as your implementation plan, but they can serve as a tremendous guide, should things go awry in your initial plans.


There is a reason that Southwest Airlines has been profitable throughout its 31-year history. It was not happenstance that Wal-Mart consistently produced annual revenues over the past five years in excess of $150 billion. A strong organizational culture and an approach to learning that encompasses more than just training classes can create an organization that learns and improves upon its past successes. When change inevitably occurs, organizations with a learning culture and a focus on organizational development can surpass even their own expectations.

Bonni Frazee is a consultant ( specializing in high-tech, service and educational companies. Her areas of specialty include learning organizations, e-learning and instructional design, marketing and communications, human resources and learning technologies. E-mail Bonni at

November 2004 Table of Contents

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