Overcoming Defense Mechanisms
Practical implications of each term are included for the benefit of organizations interested in applying theory in practice. Key words: organizational cohesion, action systems, compliance, culture of tradition, complete concrete systems, and symbolism Organizational Cohesion According to Etzioni (1961), cohesion can be defined as a positive expressive relationship among two or more actors that can reinforce negative and positive norms (p. ).
He further differentiates cohesion bonds between persons of the same rank, peer cohesion, and cohesion bonds between persons of different ranks, hierarchical cohesion. The degree to which peer cohesion exists within an organization can determine how readily norms that are held by the majority of a given group or held by the most influential persons within a group will be accepted by the remaining group participants. In other words, peer cohesion dictates the degree to which actors within a given group are likely to mimic or adopt each other’s behavior and/or values.
It has also been suggested by Homans (1951), that there is a direct correlation between the frequency and endurance of interaction within a group and the level of a group’s cohesiveness. In other words, the more group participants interact, the more likely it is that they will adopt each other’s mannerisms, outlooks, or orientations toward the larger group of which they are a part (Etzioni, 1961, p. 290). Assuming that norms that are beneficial to a particular organization are being fostered via peer ohesion, such as intra-team cooperation, the net effect could be a highly productive work environment with low employee turnover. Etzioni’s research implies that organizations with high peer cohesion tend to have low employee turnover, which reduces costs involved with recruiting and socializing new employees, knowledge capture, and maintaining daily work routines. However, it is important to note that cohesion can reinforce both negative and positive norms, which is to say behaviors that alienate an employee from an organization as well as behaviors that reinforce one’s commitment to an organization (p. 80 ). Reagans and McEvily (2003) suggest that cohesion, specifically social cohesion, influences the willingness of individuals to devote time and effort to assisting others within a given group, in addition to serving as a motivator to transfer knowledge to a coworker or colleague (p. 245). Ultimately, cohesion within an organizational group, can encourage a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” effect that can encourage knowledge exchange across employees and reduce direct peer-to-peer or intra-departmental competition amongst employees (Reagan & McEvily, 2003, p. 245).
In other words, “by limiting competition, social cohesion promotes knowledge transfer,” which is an essential component of a learning and innovative organization (Reagans & McEvily, 2003, p. 247). Although organizational cohesion can foster “exchange relationships that build commitment” (Tyndall, 2012, p. 3), it is essential that organizational leaders recognize tipping points wherein too much cohesion could increase group-think and inhibit innovation, performance, and potentially disrupt a work-group’s alignment with the overall organization’s values, should a given group’s norms contradict such values (p. ). Where possible, organizational leaders might assess the power that cohesiveness has within their organization, identify the source of cohesiveness, be it an agent of the organization or the organization itself, and take the necessary action to either encourage or discourage the cohesiveness, depending on whether it currently works in favor of the organization or to its detriment. Action Systems An action system embodies a collective effort to attain a single goal, as executed by interdependent work units’ processes, tasks, and functions. To attain its goal as a unit, a social action system adopts a structure and a process for organizing member activities” (De Ven, 1976, p. 25). An action system is a term used to describe a system that produces an output only if the necessary actions are completed by the appropriate parties throughout the entire production process-placing emphasis on the relationship that exists between actions and the larger task they accomplish.
The existence of this term serves to illustrate a theoretical shift away from focusing on work units or groups and a shift toward focusing on the individual job holders’ roles within the larger group, analogous to speaking in of terms of cogs within a machine (Tyndall, 2012, p. 3). As Parsons (1951) has noted, “acts do not occur singly and discretely, they are organized in systems” (p. 7). Simply put, an action system is made up of two components: the actor and his situation (p. 7).
By speaking in terms of action systems, the theorist or manager hopes to identify all factors that affect these two components in the name of achieving their end objective, be it decreasing production error and lags, and increasing production successes (non-defective output) or any combination thereof. The more an organization can identify all variables, resources, and actions required at each phase of production, the more it can regulate and manage them. “Resources and information flows are the basic elements of activity in organized forms of behavior” (De Ven, 1976, p. 25).
If, for example, an actor works in reception at a doctor’s office, he/she might require a computer, medical forms, chairs for patients, clipboards, pens, etc. By tracking usage and resource requirements over an extended period of time, records might reveal that there are too many patients or too few chairs in the waiting area at any given time. Identifying this fail point will serve as a signal to the organization to either increase the number of chairs in the office, increase the number of business hours (to spread out patients), add a second partner, expand to a second location, or some other alternative.
Total Quality Management, Lean Six Sigma, and Demings 14-Points of Quality are all examples of how organizations have provided structure to these very practices (Tyndall, 2012, p. 16-18) Just as an organization can identify, measure, and manage tangible resources along each stage of an action system, so too can an organization identify and measure intangible factors that influence workers orientation toward the organization and their assigned tasks. By understanding a worker’s motivation for being on the ob, an organization will be better equipped to frame that employee’s work and performance evaluation in such a way that will encourage the worker to achieve higher levels of performance. By structuring job functions in ways that directly attach task ownership to individual job holders, an organization can increase the accountability for that employee, and increase the likelihood of their experiencing satisfaction upon completely their assigned task –due to the task’s proximity to its “owner” (Tyndall, 2012, p. 8). Forward-thinking and adaptable organizations will encourage transparency and two-way feedback between management and those who are managed. For this reason, it would be wise for organizations to seek input from employees when identifying areas of process improvement within action systems, share successes across the organization, and openly value collaboration between groups and collegiality within groups (Trist, 1981, p. 43, 57, & 49). Compliance
Etzioni (1961) defines compliance as “a relationship consisting of the power employed by supervisors to control subordinates and the orientation of subordinates to this power” (p. xiii). Sciulli and Etzioni (1996) identify three sources of compliance: coercion, economic or pecuniary incentives, and normative values (p. 137). This interplay between the governors and the governed directly influences how an organization will function and be perceived by internal and external stakeholders.
Further, the dynamic between these two parties sheds light on where power, and specifically the power to make change, resides within an organization. As was exemplified in The Challenger Disaster, the extent to which an organization’s members recognize when it is necessary to comply and when it is necessary to break from routine impinges on an organization’s ability to adapt and respond to catastrophic events: Argyris’s (1990) analysis of The Challenger Disaster brought to light the following: The problems were not only in the structure, rules, and independent monitoring devices.
The problems also were that highly committed, well-intentioned, safety-oriented, can-do players reasoned and acted in ways that violated their own standards and made certain that this violation was covered up and that the cover-up was covered up. (p. 42). One could argue that NASA’s employees ignored their respective ethical instincts and instead complied with that of the organization, NASA: an unspoken practice of ignoring unsettling information in the name of making deadlines, satisfying stakeholders, or perhaps satisfying its own hubris.
Regardless, this catastrophe serves to illustrate the negative implications of compliance, particularly as perpetuated through normative values. Organizational theorists, such as Ogbonna and Harris (1998) have set out to determine what behaviors within organizations evolve through genuine organic change and behaviors that evolve in response to deliberate actions taken by management via compliance. Their research indicates that efforts made by management to alter culture within an organization via compliance may prove successful, but not for a signal unified reason.
In other words, an organization’s members may all buy-in to a behavioral modification or practice advocated by management, but for reasons that are unique to the individual members or groups of members within the organization. “Hence, a key implication of these findings is that managements attempting to alter culture should consider how multiple interpretations of the rationale for change influence the success of the change effort” (p. 284-285). Some changed in resigned compliance, some in authentic willingness, and some “cognitively accepted espoused values in order to further their careers” (p. 85-286). Management might benefit from this insight by carefully selecting which company practices or values they wish to indoctrinate employee with, particularly if such practices do not relate directly to tasks associated with production and instead relate to rules on how employees might govern themselves socially or culturally within an organization; if launching a new effort to encourage the valuing of X, perhaps it would be wise for management to seek employees’ input on why everyone should value X in order to determine whether a consensus on the promotion’s rationale exists.
This will help ensure that all employees are not only helping to move the company in the same direction, but are doing so for the same or perhaps, intended, reasons. Culture of Tradition A culture of tradition within an organization consists of a subset of individual cultural traditions or “shared symbolic system[s] which function in interaction” (Parsons, 1961, p. 11). A culture of tradition is a culture that engender s its participants with values that center on traditional or historically patterns of interaction, patterns that have come to exist through repeated practice carried out by members of the organization.
If an organization comes to value tradition, it could be inferred that such an organization will devalue or sanction behaviors that encourage or work in support of change, behaviors that we have come to know as organizational defenses or defensive routines. As Tyndall (2012) suggests, “ defensive routines are rewarded by most organizational cultures because routines indicate a sense of caring and concern for people” (p. 13). Further, Tyndall suggests that routines are often protected by the same people who prefer that such routines not exist.
Rather than expose detrimental cultural practices, organizations prefer to keep them hidden so as to prevent exposure and embarrassment (p. 13). For the purpose of this paper, let us assume that organizational identity and organizational culture are interconnected. Santos and Eisenhardt (2005) point out that “organizational identity helps members make sense of their situation by clarifying the defining attributes and purpose of the organization, thereby reducing ambiguity and providing direction” (p. 500).
If an organization’s current culture, a culture of tradition, is borne out of circumstances from fifty years ago, it can be inferred that there will a disconnect or lack of alignment between the direction the organization needs to be going in and the direction it actually is going in. Santos and Eisenhardt go on to suggest that: Organizational members actively perform collective sensemaking (Weick 1995) through which they gain awareness of new information, share interpretations of prior actions, and converge on the meaning of environmental changes and appropriate courses of action. p. 500). Assuming that employees are constantly being exposed to new information, but are inhibited on how to make use of or capitalize on such information because of the existence of cultural constraints, it will not only discourage innovation within the organization, but will also stymie employee’s desire to exercise creativity and engage with the organization. Ultimately, an organization should work to align its identity, culture, and activities it carries out (p. 00), maintain traditions that to not impinge on efficacy of essential processes, and foster an environment that embraces conflict and change (Trist, 1981, p. 47). Complete Concrete Systems Parson’s (1951) defines a complete concrete system of social action as consisting of a social system, the personality systems of the individual actors involved, and the cultural system which is built into such actors actions (p. 5-6).
A cultural or social system is stagnant, unless the elements included therein are carried out through practice and action via an action system (p. 17). He further elaborates: A social system consists in plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the ‘optimization of gratification’ and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols. p. 5-6). Parsons emphasizes the need to consider these three elements independently, as no one can be further reduced or ignored in the context of the general theory of action systems. In short, Parsons wishes to draw attention to the interplay that exists between personality, culture, and the society in which these elements exist; one cannot consider personality without also considering the context in which it exists or has been cultivated.
As an organization develops its sense of self, it might also come to recognize the types of personalities that it supports and the types of personalities that it prefers not to engage. Once an organization is able to identify the types of personalities it attracts or tends to hire, it might then explore the question of why it is that these personalities “fit” the organization; it may be that the personalities hired within an organization are in fact not working in favor of the organization’s larger mission, but instead reflect historical cultural practices that actually work against the organization.
The more that an organization is able to hone in on the types of personalities, behaviors, and the types of individuals that it is best suited to hire or from which it would benefit the most, the better able it will be to refine the organization’s culture and overall defining character. This is not to suggest that an organization should attempt to hire one type of personality, but it is to suggest that an organization should attempt to identify the types of personalities best uited for particular work units, roles within such work units, and conceive of ways to encourage hiring, training, and evaluation practices, that foster the development of such individuals rather than inhibit them. Agents within an organization should be mindful of the personalities with which they interact, particularly when presenting ideas to or interacting with decision-makers. Framing ideas in ways that appeal to decision-makers could prove advantageous and foster productive discourse. Symbolism
Symbolism, or symbolic systems of meaning, come into existence as individual social actors engage with social objects (Parsons, 1951, p. 10). An actor comes to expect or associate certain actions with particular results through practice. The dynamic relationship between actions and the associations one comes to assign to particular actions exists through communication that is both implicit and explicit across an organization. Like culture, symbols come to exist by observing or partaking in patterns of behavior; if I do X, Y happens, or on a more simple level, if I sit on X, X is a chair.
These expectations form “pattern consistency” (Parsons, 1951, p. 10), or logical consistency that enable people to transmit information to one another in ways that can be easily understood, whether this transmission is intentional or unintentional. These transmissions deliver messages to the receiver and it is these messages that come to form symbols. For these reason, symbols are highly subjective and based on the perception of the message’s recipient. Organizations must be mindful of the role that symbolism has in shaping the culture of an organization.
Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchinson, & Sowa (1986) define perceived organizational support (POS) as “global beliefs about the extent to which the organization cares about [employees] well-being and values their contributions” (Fuller, Barnett, Hester, Relyea, 2003, p. 789). Research consistently shows that perceived organizational support (POS) is positively correlated with organizational commitment. In other words, the more an organization’s employees perceive themselves to be supported by an organization, the more likely it is that they will commit themselves to the organization and its mission.
Further, when people perceive that their organization values and appreciates them, they interpret it symbolically to mean that the organization has respect for them or sees them as having a high status within their organization. Perceiving one’s self as having high status, Gardner & Pierce (1998) suggest, will likely encourage commitment to an organization; this encourages a person to believe themselves to be worthy of being an organizational member (Fuller, et al. , p. 790).