Introduction to work and organizational behaviour

by John Bratton Also by this author

OB in Film guide and bonus/OB in Film boxes

The resources below offer entertaining illustration and exploration of organizational behaviour concepts and issues through popular movies such as American Beauty, Dirty Pretty Things, and Made in Dagenham. These features are accompanied by a film guide which provides an overview of each movie, points to consider while you are watching it, space to fill in your initial analysis, and key learning points.

Chapter 1 - Introducing contemporary organizational behaviour

Chapter 2 - The social nature of work

Chapter 3 - Studying work and organizations

Chapter 4 - Personality and self-identity

Chapter 5 - Perception and emotions

Chapter 6 - Motivation

Chapter 7 - Learning

Chapter 8 - Class, gender, race and equality

Chapter 9a - Diversity and people management

Chapter 9b - Diversity and people management

Chapter 10 - Groups and teams

Chapter 11 - Communication

Chapter 12 - Leadership

Chapter 13 - Decision-making, ethics and social responsibility

Chapter 14 - Power, politics and conflict

Chapter 15 - Structure

Chapter 16 - Technology

Chapter 17 - Culture

Chapter 1: Introducing contemporary organizational behaviour

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In the film Working Girl (1988), Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith) is employed as a secretary to Katharine Parker (played by Sigourney Weaver). When her boss breaks her leg in a skiing accident, Tess has an opportunity to implement some of her own ideas for new business ventures. An investment banker, Jack Trainer (played by Harrison Ford), helps Tess to present her proposal to a group of senior business executives. The film humorously illustrates the meaning of gender harassment and organizational politics.
Watch the early scenes in the film. How is Tess treated by her male co-workers? What does the film tell us about the gendering of organizations? When Tess is presenting her proposal, what is her power base, and does this shift in the scenes near the end of the film?

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Chapter 2: The social nature of work

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The film Modern Times (1936) features Charlie Chaplin in a scathing portrayal of North American assembly-line work. The first 15 minutes of the film humorously illustrate the meaning of Taylorism and the stress associated with working on an assembly line. The film led Charlie Chaplin to be banned from the USA and some of the actors to be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Watch the first 15 minutes of the film. What does the film tell us about Taylorism? How would you rate Chaplin’s job in terms of ‘job enrichment’ techniques?

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Chapter 3: Studying work and organizations

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The film Roger & Me (1989), directed by Michael Moore, is a documentary about the closure of General Motors’ car plant at Flint, Michigan, which resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs. The film provides insight into corporate restructuring and US deindustrialization, and details the attempts of the film maker to conduct a face-to-face interview with General Motors Chief Executive Officer Roger Smith. The film also raises questions about values, politics and the practical considerations of doing organizational behaviour research.

Values reflect the personal beliefs of a researcher. Gaining access to organizations, particularly to top managers, is a political process. Access is usually mediated by gatekeepers concerned not only about what the organization can gain from the research, but also about the researcher’s motives. Watch the documentary, and consider these questions:
  • Can organizational behaviour researchers be value-free and objective in their research?
  • Who are the gatekeepers in Roger & Me?
  • How can gatekeepers influence how the inquiry will take place?
  • Practical considerations refer to issues about how to carry out organizational behaviour research: for example, choices of research design or method need to be dovetailed with specific research questions. What alternative methods could a researcher use to investigate the closure of General Motors’ factory at Flint?

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Chapter 4: Personality and self-identity

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American Beauty (1999) follows the last few days in the life of Lester Burnham, an advertising space salesman with a mid-life crisis. The film is particularly good at showing the multiple factors influencing Lester’s behaviour. Some of these reside in his personality and some in the environment. Interestingly, there are many instances when Lester’s interaction with events surfaces his personality.
Drawing upon Bandura’s model of reciprocal determinism, map Lester’s descent into a mid-life crisis in terms of his personality, his environment and his behaviour. How does this analysis of Lester shape your understanding of personality and its role in shaping behaviour?

Note: Professor Jon Billsberry, Senior Research Fellow, Open University Business School, UK, wrote this feature.

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Chapter 5: Perception and emotions

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Scottish cyclist Graham Obree is one of the greatest cyclists of all time. His fame does not stem from becoming world champion or breaking the 1-hour record twice, great though these feats are, but from the fact that he did so on a home-made bike made from washing machine parts. This aspect of his story was made all the more curious given the contrast with his closest rival, Chris Boardman, who rode a state-of-the art bicycle engineered by Lotus. In addition, Obree’s story is all the more compelling because he has suffered from clinical depression and twice tried to commit suicide. The film revolves around the apparent contrast of psychological illness and sporting success.

In the hands of most directors, Obree’s story would be a typical biopic capturing an interesting and complex life story. But the director of The Flying Scotsman (2006), Douglas Mackinnon, did quite something different with Obree’s story. Not only did he create an engaging story, but he also critiques the whole way in which biopics are portrayed. He does this by playing a perceptual trick with the audience. After following convention and telling Obree’s story, Mackinnon challenges the audience at the end when the camera looks straight into the cyclist’s eyes. At this point, the viewer is forced to question whether or not they really understand what is going on inside the hero’s head. As you watch the film, try to pick out how the director is influencing and manipulating your perception of Graham Obree.
Note: Professor Jon Billsberry, Senior Research Fellow, Open University Business School, UK wrote this feature.

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Chapter 6: Motivation

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The film Dangerous Minds (1995) centres on a former US Marine turned teacher, Lou Anne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). Ms Johnson accepts a teaching position at an inner-city high school and tries to motivate her students. The school principal, however, does not approve of her unorthodox motivation.

Watch the scene, starting with a shot of the school hallway, after the principal has reprimanded Johnson for taking students to an amusement park without signed permission. The film raises cognitive and behaviour motivation issues. Ask yourself, what methods does Ms Johnson use to motivate her students? Do the students change their behaviour as a result of her teaching approach? What lessons can be drawn from the film for motivating young workers in the workplace?

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Chapter 7: Learning

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The film Erin Brockovich (2000) is based on a true story. In the film, Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts), a legal assistant and a single mother of three children, investigates how a US company is illegally depositing cancer-causing chemicals in an unlined pond, causing high rates of cancer among the local community. The film raises questions about corporate crime, as well as about the education and training of lawyers, and access to university education.
Watch the scenes between Brockovich and the three lawyers discussing files, and look at how Brockovich deals with the cancer victims on a personal level. Do these scenes show informal learning? How does Brockovich’s work-related learning differ from the formal legal training of the lawyers? Can the lawyers learn anything from Brockovich? What does the film reveal about the opportunity for energetic and intelligent women from low-income social groups to enter higher education?

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Chapter 8: Class, gender, race and equality

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In Dirty Pretty Things (2002), we get a glimpse into the intersection of race, ethnicity, immigration, gender and class, as characters Okwe and Senay, who have both recently emigrated to England, must cope with various inequities, injustice and violence. Although the examples represented in the film are extreme, we nevertheless see a modern portrayal of multiple forms of inequity and social difference in relation to the lower-tier service economy that is growing in all G8 countries.

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Chapter 9a: Diversity and people management

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Details on a film on equal pay for women, the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole and starring Rita O’Grady. For a preview of the film go to: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2010/sep/14/made-in-dagenham-clip
Go to the following websites to compare men’s and women’s pay levels: www.statistics.gov.uk, www.ilo.org, www.clc.ca, www.tom.quack.net/wagegap.html, www. statssa.gov.za and www.abs.gov.au. How does pay for women compare with that for men in your jurisdiction?

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Chapter 9b: Diversity and people management

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The film Norma Rae (1979) is about trade union organization in the face of management opposition in a US textile mill. One of the textile workers, Norma Rae (played by Sally Field) organizes her co-workers into a union, assisted by a full-time union organizer (played by Ron Leibman). The mill management attempts to divide the workforce by pinning up a notice that claims black workers are instigating trouble and seeking to control the union. This leads to acts of violence between white and black workers.

In one scene, Norma Rae writes the words ‘UNION’ on a piece of cardboard and then holds the notice above her head for all the shop floor workers to see. In response, the machine operators switch off their machines, one by one. What does the film illustrate about employment relations in the workplace? What were the major problems that led to unionization? Could ‘better’ HR practices avoided the conflict? If so, how?

This example was originally suggested by Mills and Simmons (1995).

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Chapter 10: Groups and teams

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The film Twelve Angry Men (1957) examines the behaviour of 12 members of a jury who have to decide on the innocence or guilt of a young man from a working-class background. At the beginning, 11 jurors are convinced of the youth’s guilt and wish to declare him guilty without further discussion. One member of the jury (played by Henry Fonda) has reservations and persuades the other members to review the evidence. After reviewing the evidence, the jury acquits the defendant.

A modern version of this film can be seen in a 2005 episode of the television series Judge John Deed, in which Judge Deed (played by Martin Shaw) serves as a member of a jury and persuades the other members to review the evidence in a sexual assault case.
What group concepts do the film or the Judge John Deed episode illustrate? What types of power are possessed by the characters played by Henry Fonda and Martin Shaw? What pattern of influencing behaviour is followed by Henry Fonda and Martin Shaw?

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Chapter 11: Communication

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According to the Book of Genesis, humanity was united and all spoke the same language. However, the inhabitants of the city of Babel built an enormous tower with the intention of reaching heaven and for their own glory, rather than for the worship of God. This displeased God, who came down, gave them different languages and scattered them across the Earth. This is the biblical explanation of why people speak different languages.

Drawing from this biblical story, the title of the film Babel (2005) indicates that it is about language and miscommunication. Critically, it is about the crises caused by failures of communication. In this film, three stories are interwoven. The first revolves around the accidental shooting of an American woman on a tourist bus. The second focuses on a deaf-mute Japanese girl. The subject of the third story is the Mexican nanny of the shot American woman.

As you watch the film, try to identify the nature, causes and repercussions of miscommunication in each of the three stories.
Note: Professor Jon Billsberry, Senior Research Fellow, Open University Business School, UK, wrote this feature.

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Chapter 12: Leadership

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The eleventh film spin-off from the legendary television series Star Trek (2009) returns to tell the story of how Captain James T. Kirk became skipper of the USS Enterprise. His ascension to the chair is not straightforward, and he has to usurp Mr Spock, the more senior officer, who has been left in command when the previous captain, Captain Pike, is away from the ship and apparently lost.

Why was Kirk successful in the leadership battle with Mr Spock?

Using any system of classifying leadership style you choose, identify the dominant leadership styles of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock.

Identify key traits and behaviours of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock as illustrated in the film. Why were other officers happy to accept Kirk as their new commanding officer?

Note: Professor Jon Billsberry, Senior Research Fellow, Open University Business School, UK wrote this feature.

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Chapter 13: Decision-making, ethics and social responsibility

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Apollo 13 (1995) has some excellent scenes that show decision-making. The film tells the story of the effort of US astronaut Jim Lovell, his crew and NASA to return their damaged spacecraft back to Earth. One scene shows NASA’s mission control flight director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) writing on a chalkboard and saying, ‘So you are telling me you can only give our guys 45 hours.’ The scene ends when he leaves the room insisting ‘Failure is not an option.’ What do the scenes tell us about the decision-making process? Are the decisions made primarily by an individual or by a group?

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Chapter 14: Power, politics and conflict

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One of the best environments for looking at power, influence, authority and conflict is in the political environment. A particularly good example of this is the film Milk (2008), which tracks the rise of gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk to political power in San Francisco. He was the first openly gay person to achieve public office in the USA.

The film is very good in capturing different ways in which Milk is effective in working for the rights of his community. In addition, the film depicts how those opposing his movement use power and influence against him. As you watch the film, try to map the changes in Milk’s power, influence and authority. In doing so, assess how effective each is. To what extent is Milk more effective when holding an elected post, that is, in power, compared with his campaigning prior to being elected?

Note: Professor Jon Billsberry, Senior Research Fellow, Open University Business School, UK, wrote this feature.

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Chapter 15: Structure

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The documentary film The Corporation (2003) offers an excellent collection of case studies, anecdotes and true confessions from corporate elites, which reveal structural contradictions and behind-the-scenes tensions. The documentary also features many critical perspectives, including interviews with Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Maude Barlow and Naomi Klein.

What examples are given to substantiate the claim that corporations, if left unregulated, behave much like individuals with ‘a psychopathic personality’, creating destruction? What examples of corporate crime does the film illustrate?

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Chapter 16: Technology

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The film Enemy of the State (1998) features a successful labour lawyer, Robert Clayton Dean (played by Will Smith), who without his knowledge is given a video that ties a top official of the US National Security Agency (NSA) to a political murder. NSA agents use sophisticated technology to target Dean and disrupt every aspect of his private life. Dean and his colleague (played by Gene Hackman) use their wits and computing skills to survive.

What does the film illustrate about the abuse of communication and surveillance technology in society? How is the Internet affecting our lives in the home and the workplace?

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Chapter 17: Culture

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In recent years, there has been a growing backlash against corporate leaders accused and convicted of falsifying financial documents, misleading investors and engaging in fraudulent accounting practices. In 2002, American President George W. Bush’s rhetoric promised harsh punishment for senior executives who ‘cooked the books’ and violated the public trust, the premise being that removing a minority of corporate malefactors could solve corporate white-collar crime. The American film Wall Street (1987), directed by Oliver Stone, offers an insight into the culture of financial corporations premised on greed. What examples of organizational culture does the film illustrate? What examples are given to substantiate the claim that a culture of anomie and avarice, not simply a few unscrupulous individuals or ‘bad apples’, contributed to the historic 2008/09 market crisis?



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