For this examination of communication traditions in real world organizational settings, I’m applying cybernetic, rehtorical, sociocultural, and critical tradition to an organization I worked with as a consultant.
I worked with a small organization as the liaison between upper management and a group of influential stakeholders during a time of structural reorganization in the company. The two groups were at odds over communication and access to information during the transition.
The restructuring of the organization created a high level of equivocality among the stakeholders. Cybernetic tradition proposes that “organizing activities are designed to reduce … lack of certainty” and to move from high equivocality to lower equivocality (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 297). The stakeholders wanted upper management to provide opportunities for two-way communication on significant changes occurring which directly impacted them. However, management refused to share information or to listen to input from this group.
According to Weick, equivocality is reduced through a three-part process: enactment, defining the situation; selection, where members of the organization consider information and determine its relevance; and retention, selecting information for future organizational use (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 298). Management would not even agree to the first phase, defining the situation. As a result, the stakeholders felt unappreciated and disrespected. This created a sense of dissatisfaction among the stakeholders, the group responsible for interfacing with customers. This dissatisfaction led to a decrease in revenue and a high rate of attrition among this group. This dissatisfaction could have been tremendously reduced by simply allowing the group to have enough information to reduce their uncertainty in the future of the company and their respective roles.
Examining this situation in light of rhetoric and organizational control theory, problems in the company could have been mitigated by a different approach to control. According to Tompkins and Cheney, control in organizations is exerted in five ways: simple, technical, bureaucratic, cultural and concertive. Management was focused on direct power (simple control) and rules (bureaucratic control). The stakeholders desired concertive control, “the use of interpersonal relationships and teamwork as a means of control” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 306).
The stakeholders had a deep connection to the mission and vision of the company, and preferred “the common understand of values and objectives” to “explicitly written rules and regulations” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 306). Management feared relinquishing too much control to the stakeholders. However, had they correctly understood concertive control, they would have understood that in this approach, “the workers themselves reinforce the sources of power” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 306). The stakeholders had a strong sense of identification with the stated mission of the company and wanted to contribute to its success. Granting them information and a sense of participation would most likely have contributed to concertive control, reducing the need for the simple and bureaucratic controls that the stakeholders found to be oppressive.
In this case study, organizational culture was a significant issue. Theories of organizational culture “[look] at the meanings and values of the members. It examines the way individuals use stories, rituals, symbols” to create a shared reality (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 313). The stakeholders had a passion for the mission of the company and for the work they did with customers. They had a shared language and stories of successes that connected them to one another and the company.
Returning to cybernetic tradition, changes in the company created a high level of equivocality among the stakeholders, in particular in regards to the passionate work they felt they were doing. They feared that the culture of the company would change (and in fact, they were correct). This group of stakeholders was crucial to maintaining the brand message to customers. Supporting the internal culture of passion for the company had a direct relation to revenue and customer retention. When that culture changed, revenue dropped. Had management been willing to support the culture by involving these stakeholders in the transition process in the business, they would have been supporting the growth of the company.
Tretheway’s theory on “ organizations as gendered sites” and her research into “resistance within largely female organizations” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 321). The organization in question was predominantly female, and the company espoused collaboration as a value internally among organization members and externally in client relationships. However, in a female-focused organization, the emphasis on hierarchy and bureaucracy between this group of stakeholders and management seemed contradictory and demeaning.
This case presents an interesting opportunity to explore the gendered nature of organizations, exploring the idea–can an organization run by women still be male gendered in nature? This is a topic I’m looking forward to exploring in the future.