It is said that change is the only constant. This is as true for organizations and their behavior as it is on an individual level. Any time new information is introduced to an already extant and functioning system, that new information cannot help but disrupt the system, sending it into a veritable tailspin at times until the system regulates itself and again rights itself. Taking a class in a topic as vast and multidisciplinary necessarily shakes up the worldview of any student, for how can one gain so many novel insights without having cause to reevaluate one’s own life in light of those strange and wonderful new teachings, secrets unknown before now? Though I imagine many students react similarly to the convergence of multiple ideas from multiple fields of theory brought together in the study of organizational behavior, I know ultimately that I can only speak from my own experience, out of my own life as I have lived it these past weeks. To me, the concepts and areas of discussion that were most relevant of all the various topics touched upon in this class were diversity, for the dichotomy of its invisible omnipresence with the ways in which society still needs to discuss it; leadership, for the fact that it is not at all what I once thought it was, and for the ways in which I have needed to change my own components of leadership as a result of this course; and finally, conflict, for its similarly surprising true nature and the ways in which I must learn to regulate my own treatment of conflict so as to wander less wildly along the pendulum of action and inaction.
Diversity used to mean nothing to me. By that I mean not that I was callous or insensitive to the needs of multicultural environments or to the actual people from backgrounds different than mine that I encountered on such a regular basis. Instead, I intend to say that diversity struck me as a “solved problem”, something that previous generations had needed to worry about, but not so my own. Perhaps this view is common among those around my age, and perhaps it even smacks slightly of complacency, but nevertheless, until presented with a completely novel way with which to look at diversity by the field of organizational behavior study, that was how I viewed things. Indeed, it could be said that I had always taken diversity as a given, though Jackson and Ruderman (1995) see diversity as a challenge worth discussion: “Work teams ideally operate to maximize flexibility, creativity, and productivity in a business environment. Frustrating this effort, however, is the increasing level of diversity found in the American workplace, which often heightens the difficulty of getting people to work together effectively” (p. 82). Prior to taking this course, I did not view diversity as something that “heightens difficulty”; rather, I figured that operating under conditions where diversity is prevalent was as natural as fish swimming in water, and likewise, diversity was as invisible to me as the fish in an old joke who asks, “What’s water?” Yet once I became aware of the “water” in which I had been swimming all along, my next questions were naturally about how to apply organizational behavior theory to managing diversity in real life.
As I turned my attention to the junction where study met practice in my real life, I learned that whereas I had lauded diversity on the one hand, on the other hand, I had really spent relatively little time in my life getting to know those from backgrounds different from my own. Like some organizational leaders and indeed like some researchers, I felt a mild trepidation concerning the entire matter. This sense of foreboding is reflected in the literature; ominously, Richard (2000) says that “Although ‘valuing diversity’ has become a watchword, field research on the impact of a culturally diverse workforce on organizational performance has not been forthcoming” (p. 164). It seems that diversity has, at various times in the not so distant past, been a subject which researchers would not touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole, and in some ways, this is not dissimilar to my own resistance to actually look at the issues at hand rather than just assume they had been taken care of by previous generations. That kind of oversight is exactly what I need to avoid if I want to be a better leader.
I used to hold myself to a rather high standard of leadership that was so unachievable that it led me to doubt I could ever possess the skills and strength of character—charisma if you like—to be an effective leader. Though it shames me to admit so, I even conflated being a leader with being admired, which, though I knew it to be an incorrect equivalency intellectually, gave me great comfort and reassurance even from so small an act as being chosen to head a group project by my teammates when working on something for school. I told myself again and again that if I could cause the group to get an A, that meant I was a good leader, and thus worthy of respect. If I was not chosen as the leader, or worse, if I was chosen to lead but failed to get everyone the grades they wanted, I felt like a failure, a fraud, like my whole act had been but a sham. The reality of leading, though, turned out to be quite different once I began to study organizational behavior.
Upon studying leadership more explicitly in an academic context, I quickly learned that I had been taking a rather detached and guilt-oriented leadership style when I did lead, not engaging my followers overmuch on any type of personal level to which they could relate. In some cases, I believe they were simply unable to hear me when I spoke in a stiff and rule-directed way. Gardner (2011) explains at length how varying leadership styles can affect followers’ ability not only to allow themselves to be guided by that leader but even, in cases, their ability to hear that guidance in the first place. This shows that it is not enough to blindly send a message—or perhaps, given the importance of listening in this discussion, it would be more apt to say to send a message deafly—for a message sent on a frequency to which no one is attuned may as well not have been sent at all. Since coming to these insights, I have attempted to soften my leadership style to bring into the fold those who might be more tentative or simply less motivated and to respect the differences in what students bring with them to a small group project. I have discovered that the saying that one gets more flies with honey than with vinegar is true; when I actively asked for and received information on my followers’ outside lives, things began to change dramatically for me. Suddenly, thanks to organizational behavior theory, I was garnering respect not for my intelligence or my ambition and drive, but rather for being personable and kind. Yet soon, that would prove not to be enough for me, and I again strayed into demanding too much from my own leadership abilities.
After reading all the inspiring case studies of good leadership, effective teamwork, and other instances of sound organizational behavior applied to real-life found in the sidebars of the class textbook and elsewhere, I began to wonder if perhaps I was not doing enough in my extracurricular activity. Whatever my hobby of the moment, I have always found myself quickly commandeering the leadership role in these situations, particularly when it seemed there was some “fixing” that needed to be done. I liked to think of myself as a reformer, someone who steps in and makes a sweeping change, even if only there for a few months. Then, in my mind, if I had done my job properly, that change would stick after I had grown bored with the hobby and left to move onto the next new thing. Thus, I found it rather disappointing and even distressing to later learn that in many cases, the careful structures and frameworks I had built up to keep the change in place started crumbling the minute I was no longer there to maintain them. I had not realized I had been so often putting a gloss on an unstable façade until I left, and I saw this as a failure on my part. However, upon thinking a little deeper on the matter, I realized that I do not always need to achieve the highest level of leadership possible. Sometimes, it is enough simply to have led, to have stepped in and performed that role that some find so onerous that often few will volunteer to take on the mantle of leadership that both ornaments and burdens the shoulders of the one who wears it. However, even the vast changes in the ways in which I saw leadership took a backseat to the dramatic swings of my views of conflict over these past weeks in this class.
Conflict is an area in which my mixed feelings often do not serve me well, for whereas on the one hand, I recognize the real and crucial role that conflict can play in generating new movement forward for an organization, as described in this class, on the other hand, I still have an innate fear of any form of conflict that leads me to either shy away from it entirely or to plunge forward headlong in an exaggerated parody of “facing one’s fears” behavior. Either I was in a war zone and needed to keep myself safe, or I was in mortal combat with my adversaries, knowing that losing would mean at the very least feeling the small death of a part of my self-esteem. Follett (2011) discusses the folly of only viewing conflict as having been “constructive” or productive when either one has gotten one’s own way or when, at a minimum, it seems that valuable physical residue such as brainstorming charts has been generated in the process of resolving the conflict. Instead, I take heart in the view espoused there that all conflict that proceeds without harm to anyone’s emotional wellbeing can be potentially valuable, for merely by engaging with one another, as I see it now, we can spark off change that can ripple throughout our lives. As a friend of mine puts it in discussion groups, “I hope I become close enough to each of you here to be offended by you” (L. Barney, personal communication, 2013). His point is that only if he cares enough to be in conflict with someone can that person serve as a catalyst in his own change and growth, and this is a point in which I readily see the wisdom.
Though I do see the wisdom in constructive conflict now, I still struggle to apply such concepts to my real and actual life. I often fail to focus on what is important when conflict arises, finding myself instead entrenched in an untenable position, defending some small and irrelevant point when the conversation has already moved on. I cannot seem to help myself on this still, even in spite of all my study of organizational behavior; some mulish part of me still takes over and forces me to plant my feet and stand my ground when really all this does is to serve to make me look obstinate and unreasonable, so that not only does the current request not get met, but also I make it less likely that I will be seen as a “team player” and that people will, therefore, acquiesce to my requests in the future. I believe challenging and working on these stubborn, wild streaks inside me could be an area of growth and change, and as I know from organizational behavior theory as from elsewhere, growth and change are ever presenting us with opportunities to live out our life’s mission here on this earth.
Indeed, my very mission seems to have changed as I take into account the positive role that conflict can play in organizations. Previously, I saw myself as a peacemaker, someone essentially nonviolent unless extremely provoked, and I sometimes took this passivity with me wherever I went, even when inappropriate. I was an odd dichotomy of a person, a chimera of a rigid leader on the one hand and “wouldn’t hurt a fly” passive follower on the other, letting people cut in line in front of me without even so much as an angry glance, let alone a peep coming out of my mouth. I was only comfortable speaking up for myself when I had what I perceived as the strength of leadership, of that explicit gift of power, around me, for then I held a sense of moral rightness that what I was doing carried authority and could not be challenged—though in reality, of course, this was far from the truth. I believe my mission now is to become more fully integrated into my own personal life, trying not to stray too far either to the extremely passive or to the overactive ways of being that have in the past, it must be said, caused me so much trouble.
In my own personal life, I have fallen into many pitfalls in formal and informal circumstances alike when confronted with such areas as diversity, leadership, and conflict. Yet though I have always worked hard to continue to grow as a person trying to fulfill my duty to all of humankind to be a decent human being to the best of my ability, sometimes, I was simply missing information on how things work. This information I found in spades in this class on organizational behavior, suddenly clarifying for me many things which had been tormenting me for years as I continued to approach the same problem over and over again in the same way over and over again with, predictably, the same results, over and over again. However, once I was shown some of the research and literature in the field of organizational behavior, the real science behind the people, so to speak, suddenly my troubling conflicts became much less so. Indeed, it would be a valuable thing if perhaps all college students at one point in their college careers or another were highly encouraged to take on a class in organizational behavior, for by definition, college students are currently immersed in many organizations from small to large levels, from all the way down to the shared dorm room up through the class and the department to the college itself or even out to larger divisions. Only by working hard to more thoroughly understand the dynamics that operate when one is in an organization as a participant or more specifically even as a leader can people continue to improve themselves and the ways in which they approach problems in their own personal lives as well as in their business, financial, hobby, and volunteer lives, or in whatever other areas people might choose for themselves. The study of organizational behavior can make everyone more effective.
Follett, M. P. (2011). Constructive conflict. Sociology of Organizations: Structures and Relationships, 417.
Gardner, H. (2011). Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Jackson, S. E., & Ruderman, M. N. (1995). Diversity in work teams: Research paradigms for a changing workplace. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Richard, O. C. (2000). Racial diversity, business strategy, and firm performance: A resource-based view. Academy of Management Journal, 43(2), 164-177.