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The Class: Managing in Organizations

Headshot of Ann L. McGill, MBA '85, PhD '86
Professor Ann L. McGill is the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science and a past winner of the McKinsey Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The Background

A regularly conducted Gallup Survey shows that fewer than a third of employees feel engaged and inspired at work. The rest of the workforce is either just there biding their time, adding little value, or worse, they are actively hostile to the work, making other employees and customers miserable. I teach three sections of Managing in Organizations, and I start each course with these findings, because these employees say that the reason for the lack of positive engagement at work is their boss.

It’s not that these managers are bad people—indifferent, cruel, or domineering. The reason is less obvious and less of a cliché; and, happily, it is one more readily fixed. Most of these bosses are decent, intelligent, hard-working supervisors who want to get it right. But they are falling short because they are working with a deeply flawed model of human behavior. They just don’t know what makes people tick.

There is only one goal for the class: to help the students be better bosses. If you’re going to be the boss, what would you like to know about how you and other people think?

The Approach

Years ago, teaching a psychology course at a business school would have been considered odd, but such courses have increased in popularity. It’s now obvious why they’re necessary. All those years ago, the more common course would have been called Managing Organizations rather than Managing in Organizations. Today, we recognize that you don’t manage organizations; you manage people within them. This course draws on behavioral science—mostly social and cognitive psychology—to inform its managerial advice.

As a disciplines-based school—behavioral science being one of those disciplines—Booth organizes its management courses to say: Here’s what we know about human behavior. And, knowing that, here’s how it can inform better management. The course doesn’t involve practitioners talking about practice, because practices change fast: underlying disciplines change slowly. What students learn endures for a long time, and that serves as a solid base from which to build additional knowledge.

On the first day, I tell my students that people doing research in psychology don’t do it necessarily for a business context. They may even be hostile to the business environment, but they have a lot to tell us about what motivates people, how they make decisions, and what drives their thoughts and emotions.

A central theme of the course is to look beyond people’s characteristics—their standing traits—to understand their behavior and performance. People’s characteristics interact with attributes of the situations in which they find themselves. A common managerial mistake is making too much of the former—the person factor—and not enough of the latter—the situational factor. This can feel counterintuitive at first, because we all tend to see actions as a function of the person who produced them. But better grasping the role of the situation gives managers another powerful lever to pull to increase productivity. Is it the people or the structure of the working environment?

“There is only one goal for the class: to help the students be better bosses.”

— Ann L. McGill

The Classwork

The class is organized roughly in two halves. The first half focuses on managerial thought—how we form impressions of people, how to motivate them, and how to increase creativity in the workplace. We focus on the way our prior beliefs and expectations influence our perceptions of reality, and how those beliefs and expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies. We examine the powerful but surprising processes around incentives and discuss how to think of creativity as a problem-solving approach that is open to all, not just folks deemed as creative types, by building the positive factors that foster creativity and removing the barriers that stifle it.

The second half of the course enlarges the footprint to people within the workplace context to address managerial action. We look at the processes of giving feedback that is accurate, heard, and helpful. We also address group decision-making, which can be an improvement over individual decision-making, but also commonly falls short of the group’s potential. We consider the role of persuasion: both active persuasion, in which we present arguments to try to influence attitudes and behavior, and passive persuasion, in which we build organizational cultures, the values and norms of which shape behavior.

To drive all this home, in most weeks the 65 or so students in each section are broken into groups to work on an exercise related to the day’s concepts. To talk about creativity, for instance, they’re given a creative task. Create a headline to get people to give more money to the school, for instance. The point is not the headline—this is not an advertising class—but to watch the process of the team being creative. What prevented that from happening? What helped it happen?

In the week focused on group decision-making, students are given a big project—a survival scenario in which they have to determine the value of items following a plane crash in the wilderness. They have to consider how to make use of all the available information and data, and how to bring in their individual knowledge. How do they combine that information and expertise? How do they resolve conflicts? Did the group do better than individuals thinking about the problem on their own? Did it fail to make use of all the available knowledge in the group?

I use very few case studies, but I do include the Nummi [New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.] case that covers GM’s partnership with Toyota. The worst plant in GM’s system had the worst habits, not just absenteeism and bad attitudes but people drinking on the job and the like. GM shut the plant down. When they entered into a joint venture with Toyota and reopened the facility, they hired back almost all of those people, and it became the best plant. Obviously, the problem wasn’t the workforce because the workers were the same. So what was it? The goal is to leave students asking the right questions about their workplace and about what makes people function at their best.

From the Students

Maya Benayoun, Full-Time MBA Student: I took this course to answer the question: Why do so many bad managers exist in today’s Fortune 500 firms? Organizations tend to throw money at their lack of diversity through scholarships, enhanced marketing, and mentorship programs. This strategy fails because it doesn’t fix the actual cause of the problem. Managers hire people like themselves and make those who differ from them feel left out. Most of these actions are not malicious; they are natural. What Professor McGill has taught us will make us both aware and action oriented when it comes to changing behavior. My behavior toward others has transformed with this course, and I believe these concepts are the key to organizational change.

Elizabeth Furman, Full-Time MBA Student: This has been my favorite class at Booth so far! More so than any other class, Managing in Organizations has given me concrete recommendations on how to apply behavioral science to my working life. The working students in the class are able to take what we’re learning during the quarter, immediately implement strategies at work, and report back on the efficacy.

Tova Markowitz, Full-Time MBA Student: After Booth I will be working as a product manager, which will require me to “manage without authority.” I wanted to learn how to identify motivators and drivers for others’ performance, and how to modify my behavior and communication to create an environment for my peers’ professional growth. This class helped me realize the importance of seeing my team as human beings with unique needs, desires, motivations, and experiences. There are many opportunities for me to create an environment that encourages professional and interpersonal growth, such as using internal versus external motivators, modifying how I provide feedback, encouraging my team to overcome failures, and customizing communication and learning styles to attempt to meet everyone’s needs. These skills are imperative for all managers, and I am confident that this is one of the classes at Booth I will refer back to throughout my professional career.


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