I have been teaching an undergraduate course in organizational behavior this fall and I have quite enjoyed it. Working with and talking to students is fun, although teaching a course for the first time is always a hell of a lot of work. But although the course was new to me, the content wasn’t, since organizational behavior is basically what I worked with my entire business career. For those of you not fluent in business school lingo, organizational behavior is everything that has to do with people in the workplace – anything from motivation to teamwork to individual assessment. In a nutshell it’s how people behave, how well they do, whether or not they like what they’re doing, and how you can inspire them to do even better, which of course is crucial knowledge for any leader. And organizational behavior continues to be relevant for me in my opting out research, as I study what it is that makes people want to opt out of the organizations they work for and what it is that feels meaningful to them. So in other words, this was a good course for me to teach.
Going through the course literature brought back memories of jobs that I’ve had and projects and teams I’ve been involved in. Over the years, I’ve always saved material that is relevant when working with individuals and teams, and as a result I have a toolbox that I can dip into whenever needed. Who knew that it would come in handy for this course? It turned out, for example, that many of the tests referred to in the course literature I have either taken myself or used with my team years ago. It was of course great to have real and not just theoretical experience of what I was teaching, but I was somewhat surprised, to be honest, and a bit concerned that not more has happened on that front over the years.
I take it as a sign that organizational culture, the traits and behavior that we value in people, and how we think of work really isn’t keeping up with all the progress that is happening around us. While technology is taking giant leaps forward, assessment of individuals, of how they work, and of their output really doesn’t seem to have evolved much since the end of the 90’s when I took these very same tests. Not only that; the qualities we value and idealize in organizations are pretty much the same as they were a couple of decades ago, as well as still being very homogenous and one-sided. This is kind of ironic since the economy is becoming ever more globalized and diverse. And there is an ample amount of research that shows that the best way to work is really very relative and individual. One size just doesn’t fit all.
It makes me wonder. Most organizations really don’t seem to be doing much differently when it comes to managing their people. Just like individuals need to do something differently in order to develop or reinvent themselves (because if they do more of the same they are just going to get more of the same), especially in these times of economic uncertainty, shouldn’t organizations be doing so too? So listen up organizational leaders, in order to really reinvent your business and stay competitive, maybe it’s time to rethink not only your offering, but also how you evaluate your people, what you value in your people, and how you expect them to deliver what it is you need.
But back to my toolbox. One of the tests that I was able to share with my students, and that I have also taken myself years ago, was Belbin’s Team Roles. However, looking at my results, I hardly recognized that younger version of myself. I was much more extroverted then than I am now, and even somewhat aggressive. Which is perhaps to be expected. I was relatively new on the job market at the time, and I needed to prove and create a place for myself. I knew what was expected of me and what was valued in the business world and my behavior and my answers in the test certainly reflected that. Now, on the other hand, I’m an academic. The same qualities aren’t expected of me, and are not necessarily even desirable. I am older and more mature, I know myself better, and I don’t want nor feel that I need to act in a certain way to please current or prospective employers. And although test results give an indication of a person’s personality and traits, this just goes to show the danger of uncritically accepting these results when assessing people in organizations, as well as assuming that individual characteristics are permanent. Typologies can be especially harmful to women’s careers, because women are often defined by factors out of their control. For example, if they temporarily have to focus on caring for people who need them, they may be defined as unambitious, which in turn has an effect on their career prospects. But that is a topic that I will save for another blog post.