Understanding work, workers, and workplaces: The importance of being multidisciplinary

Readers who have been blissfully spared the buzzwords of academe may wonder what professors mean when we use terms such as “multidisciplinary,” “interdisciplinary,” “cross-disciplinary,” and “transdisciplinary.” Is it just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, or does it really matter at some level?

At least when it comes to understanding employment relations, it can matter a lot. Let’s take a quick look at why.


In academic-speak, a “discipline” is a conceptual framework, a defined subject-matter area that lends itself to teaching and research, such as economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology, and the like. The term also is used to refer to professional settings, such as business, medicine, law, and so forth.

Thus, terms such as multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary often are used rather interchangeably to mean incorporating perspectives from these disciplines in examining a given topic, situation, or problem.

The importance of mixing it up

So, for example, in examining the effects of the recession — on its face, an economic problem — we might also look at how the stress of a lousy economy affects people psychologically. In doing so, we’re thinking in a multi/inter/cross/trans disciplinary manner.

And when, say, doctors and lawyers get together to consider public health policy, they are exchanging insights from their professional disciplines of medicine and law in ways that hopefully add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Applied to workplace bullying

I have learned a ton about the critical importance of multidisciplinary thinking. In particular, in seeking to develop legal and policy responses to workplace bullying, I have benefited mightily from insights drawn from many academic and professional disciplines.

Among these, psychology has yielded the most valuable insights. Indeed, over the years I have spent many profitable hours in conferences, seminars, and conversations with folks trained in psychology. When paired with the “in the trenches” perspectives I’ve gained from talking to countless numbers of people who have experienced workplace bullying, I have a pretty good understanding of what this behavior is all about.

Clear thinking

Strip away the multi-syllabic terms and what are we left with? I think it’s called common sense.

Understanding work, workers, and workplaces calls upon us to draw upon the whole of our knowledge base about human behavior and the organizations we’ve created. Thankfully, it doesn’t require us to spend our waking hours reading academic treatises and journal articles, but it does mean that we should avoid becoming trapped in mental silos when examining a social problem and how to respond to it.

13 responses

  1. I wonder if the ‘common sense’ you are talking about, David, includes fairness, respect, kindness, honesty & ownership? In my idealistic view, I believe leaders who integrate these values into workplace goals, expectations,& culture have the capacity to stop bullying, improve outcomes, and inspire creative, collaborative problem-solving.

    I suspect these values become much more complicated when not practiced!

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!


    • Hi Beth, yes, obviously those personal qualities play a huge role. However, I specifically referenced bodies of knowledge even the best of intentions can go awry if not informed by a broad understanding of how the dots connect.

  2. I see what you mean, David. I related the two in thinking that the values I mention can/should inform all the behavioral specialties and the combination of them. It is my soapbox & slant of my response. Beth

  3. The importance of sharing knowledge and experience across a wide spectrum is critical to fuller understandings – and, yes, this seems like plain ol’ common sense.

    I find it interesting, however, when egotistical dynamics create obstacles to sharing. . .that it, when one profession believes its particular approach to something is superior and cannot/should not be integrated with considerations inherent in other professions – a kind of professional “snobbery” that results in nothing more than shared ignorance.

    Thanks so much for this great post, David.

    Take care.

  4. Hi, Beth –

    I agree with your list of additional obstacles to sharing. Taking a collaborative approach to any issue can be so challenging – and can tend to cause us to gravitate toward a seemingly simpler, one-dimensional “solution.” The real challenge is finding the balance between stagnating from information overload and moving forward with as much information as possible.

    Take care.

  5. Beth and Deb, thank you for this exchange!

    The stuff about egotistical silos is great. But maybe it resonates so strongly with me because higher ed and law, my two main spheres, are chock full of that ‘tude!

  6. Thank you Debra and David. When I wear my consultant hat, I tend to worry about alienating the people in power, when I wear my scrubs, I’m just glad when 5p comes and many of them go away. Yet I am ALWAYS grateful when anyone is helpful in problem solving.

    I think the balance you speak of is key, Debra and in healthcare information overload might also manifest as crisis overload. Keeps us in a reaction mode.

    In the spirit of self-reflection and collaborative process, I wish I had been more curious about your initial post and perspective, David. Rather than blurting out my own! I can imagine all sorts of ego in higher ed & law.

    Take care,

  7. Dave, I agree completely with your take here. Sadly, we educators are often guilty of guarding our disciplinary borders rather than welcoming strangers among us.

    On another note, I must say that your image of being trapped in a mental silo brought back vivid memories of my rural Midwestern upbringing. Every farm family knew of somebody who had died a horrific death–or had a miraculous escape–from suffocation in a silo. Clearly, that is a situation to be avoided, metaphorically and otherwise.

    • Hilda, thanks for your comment! So often when I breezily speak metaphorically to make a point, someone comes along to remind me of its underlying, true significance.

      It’s taken me a long time to get the real meaning of thinking across disciplines. In the law prof world, “multidisciplinary” all too often means law profs trying to talk the talk of another discipline without actually engaging with folks who know that discipline!

  8. Common sense is rarely common and often not very sensical.

    Common would mean that everyone understood and accepted, and given the proliferation of bullying and the need for work and school policies to set out how we are to behave – what’s common is the bullying or being bullied.

    if we did know how to behave towards each other, there would be no need for policies to lay it all out.

    • Random, I think we are on the same wavelength on the need for policies. Several months ago I wrote a piece on the Golden Rule at work (link here), that drew similar conclusions!

  9. I think you make a great point, Random. Bullying IS a cultural norm. A tacit one. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it is part of our human make up in terms of an old and very slowly evolving nature. I wonder if bullying is an extreme form of a dominance and submission dance. Maybe with roots in survival. We have a lot of work to do!

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