Related Links

WebNote Index
Decision Making
Behavioral Diagnosis

Contact information:

Dr. Richard W. Scholl
36 Upper College Road
Kingston, RI 02881

p. 401.874.4347
f. 401.874.2954

The simplest definition of the field of organizational behavior is the study  of the behavior of individuals in organizations.  This includes all types of business organizations, not-for-profit organizations, and social organizations.  Theorists and researchers studying the behavior of individuals in organizational settings attempt to explain and predict patterns of behaviors of organizational members: their direction and amount of effort, their levels of performance, and their membership and tenure within these organizations.

What do we learn when we study organizational behavior?

Students of organizational behavior (when they're successful) leave their study with three outcomes:

  1. A set of mental models or theories (we will use these two terms interchangeably) that guide them in understanding and predicting the behavior of individuals in organizational and group settings.  These mental models will be the combined result of the students' readings, discussions, and personal experiences.
  2. A set of interpersonal/leadership skills and competencies that increases the students' ability to motivate and influence individuals in organizations.
  3. An  increased ability to solve problems and make human resource decisions.  This involves the development of diagnostic models used to diagnose the causes of behavioral problems, and the development of a bank of potential solutions to behavioral problems.

The nature of theories

Many students and managers are put off by the word “theory.”  They want to learn real world techniques to help them become better managers.  They believe that textbooks do not generally represent the real world.  We often hear comments like, “that's fine in theory, but it doesn't work in the real world.”  To some extent, this is true.  The formal theories found in textbooks often do not represent every situation found in actual organizations.  On the other hand, every decision that we, as managers, make is based on the theory (or mental model) of how and why people behave in organizations.  Let's examine what theory is and how our problem solving and decision-making processes are based on our personal mental models (also called theories-in-use).

What is a theory or mental model?

In its simplest terms, a theory is a causal relationship between two variables.  The belief structure of managers can be represented as a complex set of mental models, which they use for diagnosing problems and making decisions.  For example, a  manager who believes that employee performance is increased by increasing employee satisfaction, might do everything in her power to keep employees satisfied in an effort to improve their level of performance.  Here, her actions are based on a very simple mental model consisted of two variables: a dependent variable (employee performance), and an independent variable (employee satisfaction).  We can represent this mental model as:

Employee Satisfaction --› Employee Performance

There are two major ways in which this simple mental model will affect the problem solving and decision-making of managers who hold this mental model:

Diagnosis. One of the functions of a theory is explanation, that is, to explain the variance in a dependent variable.  As a practical matter, managers use the explanatory power of their mental models in diagnosing the cause of behavioral problems.  If managers are experiencing low employee performance, they will turn to their mental models of employee performance in diagnosing these problems.  If a manager holds the simple model above, then whenever she experiences cases of low employee performance, she will attribute this problem to employee dissatisfaction (because this is the only independent variable in her model).  In most cases, managers hold more complex mental models.  Complex mental models have more independent variables, that is, the individual believes that the dependent variable (in this case, employee performance) is caused by more than just employee satisfaction.   When we have many independent variables, diagnosis becomes more difficult in that we have to choose among the combination of independent variables to determine what is causing the performance problem.  Mental models become more complex when managers introduce moderator variables to their causal models.  Moderator variables divide the population into different groups or different situations.  When managers believe that the same independent variable affects different people differently or affects people differently in different situations, they have introduced a moderator variable to their mental model.  Whether their models are simple or complex, accurate or inaccurate, managers always use the mental models that they presently hold in diagnosing the causes of problems.  If this course is successful, then one of the outcomes will be that:

    1. You will become more aware of the mental models that you use in problem solving
    2. You will develop the ability to continually challenge and improve your mental models
    3. You will develop more complex models that contain more independent variables and more moderator (individual differences and situational) variables
    4. Your mental models will become more accurate as you combine your experience with the experience of your classmates and the material presented throughout this course 

Decision-making- A second function of a theory is prediction, that is, to predict how changes in one variable (the independent variable) change another variable (the dependent variable).  Managers use the predictive power of their mental models in making decisions among alternative courses of action.  

Why is organizational behavior so difficult to explain and predict?

Since we have spent many years developing and refining theories of organizational behavior, why is it so difficult to understand, diagnose, and solve behavioral problems within organizations?  There are number of reasons why individual behavior is difficult to predict and control.  Some of the reasons are:

Complexity. Human behavior is extremely complex, that is, the prediction of behavior involves many independent variables and multiple moderator variables.  In order to cope with this complexity, we attempt to develop relatively simple models of behavior.  The simple models, while accurate in many cases, fail to capture the full complexity of human behavior and thus are often inaccurate.

Difficulty of Measurement. Many of the variables found in models of motivation and performance are internal to the individual, that is, they are mental states, perceptions, or feelings held by the individuals of which we are attempting to predict.  As managers, we can only guess at these internal variables.  When we guess incorrectly, our predictions are inaccurate.

Conflict Among Theorist. As you will soon find out, there are many models of individual behavior and motivation.  Some attempt to explain different aspects of individual decision-making and motivation, while others represent very different background assumptions (paradigms) about the nature of human behavior.  This conflict leads to confusion and indecision on the part of managers as to which models to use.

The Use of Theories and Models

Despite the inherent weaknesses in many formal theories, as I have argued before, every time we make a decision or solve a problem, we do so based on our own set of theories.  These theories-in-use drive our managerial decision-making and problem solving, and they are the basis of the development of our style of leadership.  It is therefore in our best interests to understand our own theories-in-use and work to make them more accurate and useful.

Behavioral Problem Solving and Case Analysis

Whether we are managers are not, we all solve behavioral problems every day.  Whenever we attempt to intervene or change the behavior of others, we use some type of behavioral problem solving process.  Managers in organizations confront behavioral problems on a daily basis.  Oftentimes they are dealing with behavior of a single individual, making a quick decision as to what to do.  In other cases, organizations attempt to change behavioral patterns of hundreds of employees.  Whether you are dealing with a few employees are many, is helpful to use a problem solving framework that guides you through a decision-making process in a structured way.  Below I describe a behavioral problem solving process that does works for me.  It helps me focus on the important variables, and helps me from becoming sidetracked by irrelevant information.  In this problem solving framework, the problem solver is guided through a series of problem solving stages.  Each stage is dependent upon decisions made in the previous stage.  Stages are briefly described below.  Check the hyperlink at the end of this section for a more detailed description of this behavioral problem solving framework.

Stages of the Behavioral Problem Solving Process

Problem Identification

Behavioral problem solving begins with the identification of the specific behavior that is either dysfunctional or that you wish to change.  It identifies the specific group of employees whose behavior is in question, and justifies the importance of changing that behavior.  It is generally helpful to relate the desired behavior to the organization's competitive advantage.  The key outcome of the Problem Identification Stage is the specification of the Behavioral Gap (also called the Performance Gap), which is the difference between expected/desired employee behavior and actual/observed employee behavior.
    It is important to refrain from the attribution of causes of the Behavioral Gap in this stage of the problem solving process.  Likewise, these problems should not be defined in terms of attitudes, personality, or other variables that you believe are causing the Behavioral Gap


In the diagnosis stage, the problem solver identifies what he or she believes to be causes of the Behavioral Gap.  This process starts with a First Level Diagnosis.  This level of diagnosis is used to determine which of the four fundamental causes of performance is attributable to the performance problem (Motivation, Skills, Role Perception, or Resources).  This diagnosis may reveal that the Behavioral Gap is a function of more than one of these fundamental causes.
    The Second Level Diagnosis attempts to uncover the root causes of the first level cause.  For example, if it is determined that the first level cause of the Behavioral Gap is low motivation, than the second level diagnoses would attempt to determine the root causes of low motivation.  Most successful managers use complex theories of motivation to help them with this part of the analysis.  We will develop a number of motivational diagnostic models in Module 2.

Solution Generation

In this stage process, we list a number of potential solutions to our behavioral problem.  These potential solutions should be aimed directly at changing the behavior specified in the behavioral gap and should be consistent with the causes outlined in the diagnosis stage.

Solution Choice

In choosing among the alternative solutions, we consider cost-effectiveness, likelihood of success, ease of implementation, the level of disruption to other systems, and likely effect on other organizational stakeholders.

Solution Evaluation

An often forgotten stage of the problem solving process is the evaluation of the effectiveness of not only the solution chosen (did it eliminate the behavioral gap), but also the evaluation of the decision-making process.  This is especially important if the chosen solution did not eliminate or reduce the behavioral gap.  Evaluation of the process involves questions such as: Were the right people involved?; Were the mental models used in our process accurate?; Did the process we used have an adverse effect on the solution chosen?; and What can we do next time to ensure a better result?