Unifying Principles of

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Theories and models of organizational behavior and management continue to increase in number and complexity. While much of the recent research has not made its way into standard business textbooks, these textbooks nonetheless offer a broad array of topics and concepts that can easily overwhelm both student and practitioner. No common thread appears to link these disparate topics, despite the fact that variations on the same theory often can be found across topics. This paper describes four underlying principles of organizational behavior and management that distill and synthesize essential features of many of the established theories and models. Each principle is described in terms of two concepts, which can be viewed as dichotomous, continuous, or paradoxical measures of the principle, and applied independently or in combination to explain representative theories. The implications of these underlying principles for teaching organizational behavior and management as well as for conducting organizational analyses are discussed.

For several decades, business schools have offered introductory courses in management principles, organizational theory, and organizational behavior. One or more of these courses is generally among the eight to ten required/core courses in a bachelors or masters degree in business.

These management courses draw from a wide variety of sciences, including psychology, sociology, social psychology, anthropology, political science, and systems theory. Concepts and theories from both pure and applied science are introduced to help explain the nature of life in organizations in terms of personality, motivation, communication, planning and control, decision making, leadership, power, conflict, job design, teambuilding, organizational design, organizational culture, and change (Miner, 2002).

In part because these topics are drawn from so many disciplines, courses in management principles and organizational behavior are frequently described as “survey” courses. That is, each week a new topic is introduced which, while certainly part of the fabric of organizational life, appears only loosely tied to prior topics. Even within a weekly topic, such as motivation or leadership, it is often challenging to find a single model that links together all the disparate theories. Thus, a course on organizational behavior and management is unlike a course in mathematics or physics, where the early principles provide a foundation from which more complex models emerge. This is both a blessing and curse, since lacking an understanding of the basics of mathematics makes comprehension of higher-level models challenging if not impossible, which is not the case in a course on organizational behavior. However, lacking a dominant thread let alone a hierarchy of concepts, management and organization theory often seems unfocused or disjoint. At the same time, some theories or models found under different topics appear to be variants of one another (although not immediately obvious to the student eye). For example, Freud’s (1965) concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego corresponds in some ways to Aldefer’s (1972) existence-relatedness-growth theory of motivation and to Kohlberg’s (1984) fundamental stages of moral development (preconventional, conventional, postconventional), each moving from self to others to transcendent self-other. Thus, there would seem to be commonalities among select theories, which may in fact be grounded in a finite set of principles.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce four principles of organizational behavior and management that appear to cut across topics and theories, and which can help us better understand the basic themes of organizational life. These principles are: individual vs. collective, differentiation vs. integration, centralization vs. decentralization, and linear vs....
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