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The Context of Organizational Behavior


By Christopher Deal


In the study of organizational behavior and diversity, the use of models, theories, and past experience are each helpful in gaining a complete understanding. Individuals within an organization behave as they do as a result of the context in which they are immersed. This short article seeks to examine this context in order to further the cause of helping managers deal with issues in their organizations from a standpoint of knowledge and understanding, rather than guesswork and out-dated methods.


First, the organization as a system will be discussed, including its interdependence upon other systems. Next, the importance of relationships as a vital part of the operation of organizations will be mentioned. Then, the management of diversity will be outlined, leading to a discussion of the importance of culture in influencing values.


The Organization as System


Organizations may most accurately be thought of as systems in which dynamic processes continually re-shape the system in response to sub-systems, other systems, and the environment. According to Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001), the model of a system helps understand the way organizations operate. They define a system as a set of mutually interdependent elements.


In the case of a social system, the elements are behaviors and attitudes. The system takes in energy and translates it into a pattern, producing a useful output. In order to maintain equilibrium, the system must process information from its environment, analyze the feedback, and make the appropriate adjustments (Katz and Kahn, 1978). For social systems, this means developing self-adjusting behaviors. Systems are open in that they operate within the context of their environment, responding to changes in that environment with changes in policies, rules, or other operating behavior. An individual may be seen as a part of a system, but since most systems are subsystems of larger systems, every individual is a part of numerous systems. Each of the systems influence an individual’s behavior.


The Importance of Relationships


When the organization is conceptualized as a system, the importance of relationships becomes obvious. Certain elements of relationships, such as trust and rapport, determine the nature of communication that takes place within an organizational system. Problems resulting from interpersonal relationships are the largest single reason for terminating a competent manager (Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001). If communication is smooth and unfettered by personal disputes, dislikes, and other problems, the organization as system is most efficient in responding to changes in the environment and making the necessary adaptations. Therefore, management should place a high priority on developing healthy relationships with organizational members, as well as helping make relationships between members cordial and effective (McDaniels and Walls, 1997).


Management of Diversity


Originally, diversity was seen as desirable because of its justness or fairness (Kirby and Richard, 2000). However, it was not seen as having other benefits to organizations. More recently, the benefits of diversity have been touted as being numerous and widespread. Diversifying the workforce is believed to have the effect of enriching organizational relationships, which allows for more effective self-organization (McDaniel and Walls, 1997). Another benefit of diversity is the ability to view problems from multiple perspectives, allowing work-groups to solve such problems most efficiently by using the correct approach for the correct problem. In the model of cultural synergy, managers create policies and strategies based partially on the cultural patterns of organization members and clients. In doing so, they are able to “transcend the individual cultures of their members” and create cultural synergy (Adler, 1991, p. 108).


McDaniel and Walls (1997) use quantum theory and chaos theory to illustrate the “unknowable” nature of organizations. They see organizations as akin to organisms in their possession of organizational intelligence and their ability to learn. Seen in this way, organizations explore new possibilities which increase performance and improve systems. Infusion of a diversity of thinking styles and world views would only make such an organization more effective. Therefore, in the management of diversity, it appears that along with more diversity, more tolerance for ambiguity is necessary.




In addition to environmental or system influences on behavior, members of organizations bring with them their own sets of internal values, which also influence their behavior. Values can be defined as “something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable” (Merriam-Webster, 1988) or “what is really important in life” (Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001, p. 174). Values may be seen as predictors of behavior because they determine how a person conceptualizes his or her world. Behaviors that will be performed include those that are in line with one’s most deeply-held values, whereas those that will be avoided may conflict with one’s values.


Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001) claim that values come from an individual’s personality, but these authors ignore the role of culture in shaping values. The assumption is that somehow each individual comes up with his or her set of values on their own. Values are actually created within a context of many overlapping cultures, including, family, regional, national, language. As children are socialized, they learn an implicit set of values that are held in common amongst members of particular groups. This “programming of the mind” does allow for some individual differences, but it also predetermines the value-sets of most people (Hofstede, 1997).


As a result of the importance of relationships in the organization as system, the role of values in predicting behavior is also pertinent to the management of diversity. Relationships between people from different cultural backgrounds will involve behavior which is motivated by underlying values. Since these underlying values are different amongst different cultures, the potential exists for misunderstanding. Therefore, management must oversee not only the implementation of diversity, but also ensure that relationships between members of different groups are based on cooperation and mutual understanding (Chen, Chen, and Meindl, 1998).




The behavior of individuals in organizations can be understood by examining the context within which each individual operates. When viewed as a system, an organization consists of people who are engaged in interdependent relationships which enable dynamic, responsive changes, allowing the system to survive. Diversity is gradually becoming seen as a benefit rather than a liability to organizations, making them more innovative, competitive, and responsive to diverse customers.


In addition to maintaining and encouraging diversity, managers must go further to ensure that the relationships between diverse members are effective. Values, part of a person’s self-concept, are culturally-determined constraints which affect how an individual within a system behaves and communicates with others. Therefore, the importance of attaining an understanding for other cultures’ underlying sets of values is vital for maintaining healthy relationships in a diverse organization.




Adler, N. J. (1991). International dimensions of organizational behavior (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: PWS-Kent.


Chen, C. C., Chen, X., & Meindl, J. R. (1998). How can cooperation be fostered? The cultural effects of individualism-collectivism. Academy of Management Review, 23, 285-305.


Cohen, A. R., Fink, S. L., Gadon, H., & Willits, R. D. (2001). Effective behavior in organizations: Cases, concepts, and student experiences (7th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Irwin.


Hofstede, G. H. (1997). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Katz, D., and Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations. New York: Wiley.


Kirby, S. L., & Richard, O. C. (2000). Impact of marketing work-place diversity on employee job involvement and organizational commitment. Journal of Social Psychology, 140, 367-377.


McDaniel, R. R., & Walls, M. E. (1997). Diversity as a management strategy for organizations. Journal of Management Inquiry, 6, 363-375.


Webster’s ninth new collegiate dictionary. (9th ed.). (1988). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.


© 2005 Christopher Deal.