Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter  2002    Volume 6, Issue 4



Using Literature and Film in Organizational Behavior


Stephen C. Betts

William Paterson University


Stephen C. Betts is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Cotsakos College of Business, William Paterson University of New Jersey, Wayne, NJ.  He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University and his teaching/research interests include organizational behavior, research methodology, leadership and multiple-jobholding



In management classes, examples and case studies are often used to illustrate concepts.  The vast majority of these illustrations are taken from contemporary management situations.  However, the theories presented, especially in the area of organizational behavior, are portrayed as being generalizable beyond modern business organizations.  In this paper a creative term project is proposed, drawing on a single work of literature, along with a film adaptation, to illustrate the vast majority of the course content. Besides being an entertaining and engaging way to illustrate and apply course content, this approach reinforces the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary education and specifically encourages linkages between the business school and the arts.  Romeo and Juliet, Wizard of Oz, and Moby Dick are used to illustrate how the project was successfully employed.



The use of real-life examples and case studies is very common in management classrooms.  Textbooks typically have a range of examples from brief anecdotes related to individual content points to large case studies covering several chapters.  One creative way to augment these real-life examples is the use of illustrations from literature and film.   The premise is that the ideas presented in the course are widely, perhaps even universally applicable notions about people and organizations.  A single piece of literature, if it has the proper characteristics can provide an ‘alternative reality’ to serve as a comprehensive metaphor for contemporary organizational reality.


Using a single literary work has two advantages - first, the students become familiar with the story, characters and situations, and second, it allows the students to see how all of the content of the course interacts.  This approach was successfully used for the term project in an undergraduate organizational behavior course, which is a required course in most management degree programs.  The course addresses the 'micro' theories of organization, focusing on human behavior and action within the organizational setting.  It is closely related to industrial/organizational psychology, but also draws from sociology, social psychology, organization theory, economics, and other disciplines.  In three recent semesters the literary works used were Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz and Moby Dick.


Choice of Source Material

Several criteria were employed in selecting the literary works upon which term projects were based.  The primary consideration was that they had the requisite complexity to illustrate all of the course material, which eliminated many types of stories.  For example, many classics have a single-minded heroic individual overcoming some terrible hardship or adversary.  This type of story would not fit the needs of an organizational behavior class.  The specific considerations were that the work had identifiable organizations, groups and leaders, and involved a variety of complex characters in complex situations.


Two additional considerations were that the story be interesting to students and that care be taken regarding extreme viewpoints.  A story that holds the students' interest hopefully will result in greater effort put into the term project and attention during presentations. There is a potential problem that strong advocacy of relevant political, ethical, or religious positions may create a polarized topical debate that overshadows the course content.  Although discussion of various points of view is a vital necessity, extreme bias in a work may limit constructive discourse and be distracting.


A final, practical consideration in the choice of material was that there was a film version of the book or play that captured the essential elements.  The students were required to become familiar with the material, and given the choice of reading the play/book, watching the movie(s) or both.  In practice, all of the students watched a film version at least once, most read at least part of the play/book and many read the work in its entirety. A preferred film version was suggested for Romeo and Juliet (Zefferelli’s 1968) and The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939).  For Moby Dick two works were suggested, the well-known movie (1956) and TV miniseries (1998).


Examples Identified by Students

During each semester that this project has been used, students successfully identified and explored examples of the majority of the course content material.  The following is a list of a few of the topic areas covered in the organizational behavior course and some actual examples identified and explored by students:


Romeo and Juliet

Organizational Structure - the Verona socio-political hierarchy from the Prince on down to the servants of the two families.

Inter/Intra Group Dynamics - (inter) the initial clash between the servants of the Montagues and Capulets, (intra) Romeo trying to stop his friend Mercucio from fighting.

Transactional Leadership - the Prince of Verona’s attempt to control the situation by talking to the head of each family.

Politics - Lord Capulet arranging Juliet's marriage to Paris to increase his social position.

Expectancy Theory (Motivation) - Romeo and Juliet’s decision to run away was based on the expectation that they would be together.

Communication - a failure in communications between the Friar and Romeo resulted in the deaths of Paris, Romeo and Juliet.

Decision-Making - The Montague servants deliberated before each response directed toward the Capulets.


Wizard of Oz

Culture - the lyrics of the ‘Merry Old Land of Oz’ song tell about the cultural norms of the Emerald City.

Teamwork - Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion worked together as a team throughout the story.

Coercive Power - the Wicked Witch throwing fireballs at the Scarecrow.

Attitudes - Cowardly Lion’s cognitive dissonance caused by being afraid and his image of a lion as a fearless beast.

Individual/Group Goals - Dorothy’s group all had individual goals and a group goal of reaching the Wizard of Oz.

Problem Solving - the Scarecrow devised a plan to distract the guards so they could get into the castle.


Moby Dick

Charismatic Leadership - Ahab rallying the crew to hunt the white whale.

Goal Conflict - Starbuck’s concern with the hunt for Moby Dick interfering with the goal of obtaining whale oil.

Job Specialization/Rewards - Queequeg, a harpooner received a high wage compared to Ishmael, an ordinary seaman.

Work Group Autonomy/Coordination - the whale boats acted in concert and individually.

Personality - clear differences between Starbuck, Stubb, Flask and others.

Perceptions - Ahab capturing St. Elmo’s Fire viewed as something supernatural.

Industry Norms - Ahab violating a custom by refusing to join in the search for the Rachel’s lost boat.


Basic Project Design

The class was divided into 6 groups.  Each group was assigned a list of topics from the course.   The group was to prepare a written report and oral presentation.  Their goal was ‘to show how the topics from class could be used to provide insight into the dynamics of the case’.  It should be emphasized that the approach was for the students to apply the course content to gain insight into the story, not to look for illustrations of course material.  The premise is that the students will bring the course content into the world with them and use it to better understand their workplace.  In this regards, the project goes beyond understanding the course material and into its application in analyzing a situation.


The project was worth 50 points out of 225 total points in the course (22%).  Each student received a maximum of 25 points for hi/her individual written contribution, 15 points for the overall group written project, and 10 points for the group oral presentation.  The written project was due and the oral presentations were given during the last week of class before the final exam.


Written Report

The group was required to write a report that consisted of an introduction, four pages from each student and a conclusion.  Each student’s section needed to be clearly identified.


Some advice given to the students regarding the written report:

-  Use your discretion as to the most important and relevant course material from the topics assigned; you are not obliged to cover everything.

-  Use your discretion as to the most important and relevant people, situations and events to address from the book/play (movie).

-  Familiarize yourself with the story by reading the book/play, attending a performance of the play, watching a film or video version, and/or consulting other sources.

-  Use a common format for the written sections.  Identify each group member’s section in some way, such as starting each on a new page with the author in the header.

-  Consider dividing the assignment by: course content, movie events/ decisions, movie characters, movie themes/ situations.

-  Common Problems: repeating story (we know the story), explaining course material (we know the material), weak connections (clearly link the story and course content), odd interpretations (check with your group to insure proper interpretations)


Oral Presentations

The oral presentations were far less formal than the written presentations.  Each group was given 30 minutes of class time for the presentation.  The students were informed that the presentation grading would be very liberal, and they were encouraged to take risks and be creative.  The classes came up with some creative, well thought out and entertaining projects.  One example was a live “Juliet Has A Secret” episode of a Jerry Springer-like talk show.  The various characters and issues were systematically revealed as on the TV show, and ‘Jerry’ asked questions cleverly using the terminology and concepts from the course.   Another memorable project was a version of the Hollywood Squares game with characters of the Wizard of Oz in the Squares.  The questions related storyline elements and course concepts.  Perhaps the most ambitious and well executed project was a video presentation splicing sections of two versions of Moby Dick and a documentary on whaling, with captions indicating course content being illustrated by the story or documentary segment. 


Some advice to the students regarding oral presentation:

-  Have fun.

-  Be creative.

-  Tie course content into movie or book/play, you can be entertaining, but still be informative.

-  Assume audience is familiar with course content and play/book (movie).

-  Feel free to involve class, use audio-visuals.

-  Don’t feel obligated to cover all content of written paper.

-  Some successful ideas: Game show (Jeopardy, Hollywood Squares), Talk Show (Jerry Springer, Jay Leno), Video, Power Point Presentations and multi-media combinations.


Final Thoughts

Although the project has been successful in its current form, some alternative approaches might be considered, such as:

-  Integration throughout the semester: Instead of a project and presentations at the end of the semester, have the class familiarize themselves with the story early.  The class can have a standing assignment to provide analysis of the story with the current course material.  An alternative is for the instructor to center lectures around the story/film.

-  Scenarios and counterfactual analysis: Using the people and situations from the story as a basis, ‘what-if’ situations and alternative courses of action could be explored.  For example, the unrest in Verona that led to the tragedy could be examined and potential outcomes of alternative courses of action for the Prince, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet could be explored.

-  Using multiple sources: This may be particularly applicable when there is a limited range of course material being examined.  In this approach the uniformity is in the material covered.  It allows students to see the material is applicable over a range of situations.


The use of a single piece of literature, along with a film adaptation as a comprehensive metaphor for contemporary reality has proven to be an entertaining and engaging way to illustrate and apply course content.  The students coming into the course already know of the project and look forward to it.  To pique student interest, a different book/play/movie is used each semester.  Several colleagues are also adapting the idea to other courses.  I encourage management educators to consider incorporating this novel approach into their courses.   The approach reinforces the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary education and specifically encourages linkages between the business school and the arts.