Blog 2

Seeing Behaviour

Mary Waller - color

Mary Waller

Schulich School of Business

About 200 years ago when I was completely frazzled and just about to defend my dissertation, I accompanied my older sister to a charity bazaar. We ran into some of her more affluent friends, to whom I was introduced. One particularly effusive woman engaged me in a brief exchange that went something like this:

Rich Friend:    “Oh, now, I hear you’re finishing a Ph.D.! Is that right?”

Me:                  “Yes, that’s right.”

Rich Friend:    “Well, I think that’s just faaabulous. What’s your topic?”

Me:                  “The Ph.D. will be in Organizational Behaviour.”

Rich Friend:    “Oh my goodness! That’s just wooonderful!”

Me:                  “Really?”

Rich Friend:    “Well, yes… I’ve been looking for someone to do my closets!”

My sister, who had wisely remained within earshot, quickly inserted herself between her friend and the verbal venom that was spooling up inside me, and shuffled me off to another booth to examine something rhinestone-bedazzled.

So why should I have taken such umbrage at the assumption that I would be good at organizing closets? Well, first, anyone who knows me understands my complete inability to keep anything organized, but beyond this idiosyncrasy, those of us in the field of organizational behaviour, or OB, work very hard to understand human behaviour in organizations. Human behaviour alone is fascinating, and our behaviour in organizational settings even more so. We often engage in behaviour in organizations that we would never dream of doing elsewhere. For example, one of my first experiences as a new corporate employee in my early 20s was watching two senior managers almost come to blows over who was to possess the only set of dark brown office furniture on our floor (all other furniture was light brown). I later learned that the Big Boss had dark brown furniture, and that the colour was interpreted in this organization’s culture as a sign of power. But I digress.

Not surprisingly, most of us who study and teach OB do so in schools of business, where we use OB theories — which typically integrate concepts from disciplines such as social psychology, sociology, and communication — to teach current and future organizational members about collaboration, management, leadership, and other key person- and team-focused processes. But learning about OB theories is one thing — being able to use these theories to recognize and correctly interpret behaviour as it unfolds is something else altogether. As a result, I’ve been using very short clips from films in my Managing Team Dynamics class to illustrate particular team behaviours that I want my students to be able to quickly recognize. Why use films instead of videos of actual working teams? As it turns out, learning to identify and classify team behaviour quickly and accurately is just plain hard, and the behaviours portrayed by actors in the film clips tend to be more clear and demonstrative than are the behaviours of people in “real” (vs. “reel”) settings. I typically use up to five clips, each ranging from 15-30 seconds long, periodically during the course. I show one clip to the students, then ask the class as a whole to tell me, using our team dynamics theories, to describe what was going on in the clip. We engage in a quick discussion about how they would react to the behaviour before I move on to another clip. Sometimes I have the students sit in their teams (we use permanent teams throughout the course) as they view the clips, and discuss and decide on their answer as a team. I refer to this exercise as “video batting practice”; by the end of the course, some students report that they can’t stop seeing and identifying team behaviours everywhere! Like learning a new language, being able to interpret patterns of behaviour that were formerly hidden, I believe, gives our York/Schulich students a special advantage as they enter (or return to) their organizations. And we have a lot of fun in the process, too!

If you’d like to know more, my former Ph.D. student and a former MBA student and I wrote a paper on this method: Waller, M.J., Sohrab, G., & Ma, B.K. 2013. Beyond 12 Angry Men: Thin-slicing film to illustrate group dynamics. Small Group Research, 44: 446-465.


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Comment on “Blog 2

  1. Mary,

    thanks for sharing this interesting approach to understanding behaviour in corputopia. I recently left a 22 year career in said world to explore sociology and human behaviour, as I was fascinated with the goings on around me and now want to understand how to help organizations shape culture and behaviour to create more meaningful, collaborative and productive work environments, as well as better experiences for customers. Video Batting Practice sounds like a great approach to provide better visibility and help students ‘see’ what they are looking for. I will definitely delve into the details your paper will provide.

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