What Are Some Theories of Organizational Behavior?

by Christopher Faille; Updated September 26, 2017
Woman shelving books

There are many distinct theories of how people behave in organizations and, accordingly, of how the organizations develop over time. These theories can be categorized into at least three broad groups: configurational; cognitive and cultural. Configuration theories focus on classification of organizations into types; cognitive theories focus on how participants understand their organization and the world in which it acts and cultural theories focus on an anthropological, rather than a psychological, understanding of the individuals involved and their interactions.


Woman talking about configurational theories

Henry Mintzberg developed one of the most prominent configurational theories, in which he identified seven distinct types of organization: entrepreneurial, mechanical, professional, diversified, innovative, missionary and political. As summarized by Christiane Demers in "Organizational Change Theories" (2007), in Mintzberg's view these types of theories differed from each other largely in the way action is co-ordinated, which is usually through the combination of five mechanisms: direct supervision; standardization of processes, outputs or skills and mutual adjustment.

Danny Miller, a scholar very much influenced by Mintzberg's work, drew from it the conclusion that a successful corporation within any one of these forms tends to lock itself into that form -- it will not pass from one to another by incremental steps but only, if at all, by revolution.


Theorist researtching

Cognitive theorists tend to see the configurational approach as too deterministic and positivistic. They seek to construct theories of the "social universe" as "open to indefinite revision, change and self-propelled development," in the words of David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, in their "Appreciative Inquiry Handbook" (2008).


Woman wearing African tribal necklace

References to corporate "culture" in the theoretical literature may have begun with Elliott Jaques', "The Changing Culture of a Factory" (1951). Jaques took the approach of an anthropologist studying some distant tribe by living in their midst. He described it as "a case study of developments in the social life of one industrial community between April 1948 and November 1950." Like cognitive theorists, cultural theorists focus on subjective and symbolic understandings within the work world. The difference is that the concept of culture, sometimes defined as "the way we do things around here," is broader than cognition and conceptual understanding.

Interpretive and Functional Views of Culture

Business women chatting at work

There are two rival variants within the cultural camp. Demers calls them the "interpretive perspective" and the "functionalists."Another way to look at is the "bottom up" versus the "top down" cultural views. She wrote that the functionalist scholars study whether the managers are right or wrong about the culture of their employees, with the assumption that if they are right, they will be able to manage more successfully.

Interpretivists, on the other hand, are more likely to see "organizational subcultures ... as likely sources of change." In other words, they see the employee culture as exerting a tug on the management.

About the Author

Christopher Faille is a finance journalist who has been writing since 1986. He has written for HedgeWorld and The Federal Lawyer and is the author of books including "The Decline and Fall of the Supreme Court." Faille received his Juris Doctor from Western New England College.

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