Archives for March 2013

Handling Labour Relations Disasters

A female employee was involved in a romantic relationship with a male member of the team. He was married. She had enough. The romance ended. He was unable to accept the end of the relationship. He called her repeatedly, at home and at work. He openly harassed her. He distributed photos of her. The woman, her co-workers, and supervisors all saw what was happening, but no one quite knew how to help. Some didn’t know if it was their business to intervene. Some thought this was a “private matter.” Eventually, the mentally unstable man came to the workplace. He stabbed the woman, causing her death. He then left the workplace, and killed himself.

This is a true story.

Consider the tragic human elements involved; the impact for the families of both people involved. Consider the implications for the human resource professionals, for the union, and for every individual working in this organization:

  • There is widespread shock among employees, some of whom witnessed the episode
  • There is guilt among supervisory staff, who were aware of the harassment
  • There is a sense of danger that permeates the workplace, and has impact on morale
  • Numerous grievances are filed, asserting failure to provide a safe workplace
  • Numerous complaints of harassment are lodged
  • Absenteeism rises dramatically
  • Performance is affected, but supervisors are reluctant to counsel or impose discipline
  • Gossip is rampant
  • There appears to be no exit strategy from the disaster.

Not all workplaces, thankfully, experience harassment that leads to such an extreme result. But this episode has been taken, in the province of Ontario, and across the country, as a lesson in how to heed the warning signs of workplace violence. The warning signs are critical because criminologists tell us that most violent acts are precipitated by warnings—sometimes clear cries for help.

We have all learned the importance of addressing harassment complaints in a vigorous and thoughtful manner, knowing that our activities in this field have potential to save a life, to protect our employees from hurt and from fear, and to save our organizations the institutional pain of workplace disaster.

We have learned how to approach grievance handling, for example, from a “strategic” perspective—one that addresses the causes of grievance backlog, the root of piled-up grievances that deal with the same area of discontent, and lead to a clear path from the catastrophic potential of workplace conflict to a safer environment with more effective practices for identifying and preventing an escalation of hostility. Let’s consider the lessons that have been taken from the factual situation described above.

Best Practices in Dealing with Harassment Complaints

With statutory changes across the country, issues of workplace violence and harassment have become occupational health and safety issues. It becomes mandatory for employers, employees, supervisors, and unions to address complaints of harassment with a deliberate and serious approach.

Harassment complaints are serious. They should be addressed quickly—even if the usual pace for addressing complaints or grievances would provide for longer timelines.

Employees have to feel that making a complaint is easy. In some workplaces, written complaints are appropriate, but in others, it may be that employees will be more comfortable meeting privately with the appropriate individual to orally report their experiences.

Employees who have harassment complaints should be given the opportunity to tell their story—fully and in their own way. The listener is advised to listen actively, without judging the story. Listen first and investigate later.

Complaints should be received and heard by the appropriate person in the appropriate position. These are serious complaints, and the organization’s practices should reflect that fact. If the employee needs to complain about the person who would otherwise hear their complaint, such as their own supervisor, then an easily accessible alternate route should be available, and should be made known.

Employees should understand that if their complaint is to be taken seriously, it must be investigated, and cannot be kept confidential. The alleged harasser has rights. He or she is entitled to know what the complaint is, who made it, and what the particulars of the complaint are.

It is often appropriate to take immediate steps to separate the individuals involved, until investigation can take place. Sometimes, the facts warrant suspension of one person pending investigation.

If the complaint involves an allegation of a criminal act, such as threatening, assault or sexual assault, police should be called.

Numerous Related Grievances

It is common, when several grievances are filed addressing the same area of concern, for the union to file a policy grievance that will enable systemic consideration of the identified problem. If the organization becomes aware of numerous complaints that raise issues of harassment, the situation may be considered serious. Each of these complaints presents its own significant human drama, with potential to affect the lives of each person involved. Each involves issues of fear, insult, trust, uncertainty, vulnerability, and ultimately, aggressive adversarial conflict. When harassment grievances are significant in number, the strain on the organization (not to mention the strain on human resources professionals and union executive) can prove costly and disruptive.

In a workplace that does not take a “strategic” approach to grievance management, both union and management officials may be inundated with a high volume of time-consuming grievance work. Morale will be impaired. Conflict among co-workers may escalate. There may be a toxic individual, or a combustible relationship on the making. This is not healthy.

Best practices include meeting with union officials immediately and listening carefully to the complaint. Given the potential that an early harassment complaint may be a cry for help, or a warning of potential physical violence, consider interim preventative measures, such as the separation of individuals that were referred to earlier, while investigation takes place. Particularly in cases of multiple harassment complaints naming the same alleged wrongdoer, strategic management may include stepping away from the usual grievance procedure, and quickly moving to explore the issues and allegations. This is a situation in which it makes good sense to err on the side of greater caution.

Cases of Union Conflict

Harassment complaints often involve co-workers. Both the complainant and alleged wrongdoer may be members of the same bargaining unit. The union finds itself in a tough position, because it has an obligation to represent both individuals.

In cases where more than one complaint is made against the same individual, it is likely that there is a high degree of animosity among bargaining unit members, many of whom would prefer a safe workplace without the alleged harasser present. The union and local executive will be under considerable pressure.

The union’s conflict will have to be carefully considered, and a solution found. Generally speaking, it makes good sense for the union to represent one of the individuals, or the group with the same interest, and assume the responsibility of securing and paying for independent legal counsel for the other.

Making the Most of Grievance Meetings

Grievance procedures are often overlooked as useful and potentially effective dispute resolution mechanisms. This is a costly error in strategic grievance management, whether one is working from the union or management perspective.

Grievance meetings are required to take place early in the grievance procedure. With the appropriate people in the room, focussing on the problem, armed with the facts that are available at this stage, a thoughtfully conducted grievance meeting can provide excellent opportunity to manage a potentially violent situation.

Strategic management of grievance meetings requires consideration of who should attend. To the greatest extent possible, facts should be gathered in preparation for that discussion. In cases of serious harassment allegations, or multiple harassment allegations, consider sharing data in a fulsome way at this early stage. Share early investigation results. Prepare the grievance committee or management team to listen carefully, to convey uniform information, and to be consistent in the goal of the meeting. Particularly in addressing a serious harassment complaint, the grievance meeting is no place for inter-team conflict or individual political agendas.

Controlling the Grievance Process

If the matter does not resolve at the grievance meeting, consider the next important steps in handling the harassment grievance. There is a critical decision to be made about proceeding to arbitration or mediation. Consider which process is right for this case. What are the pros and cons of each process? Do you need a legal precedent in the case? Do you need an award that is public, rather than a settlement that may be confidential? Can the grievor withstand the arbitration process? Should he or she be exposed to cross-examination, and the formalities and stresses of arbitration?

Consider whether arbitration or mediation will be the most desirable process for the labour relations between the parties. The harassment grievance puts a strain on everyone in the workplace, but the relationship is a long one, and will continue after this dispute is resolved. Which process will, in the circumstances, best serve the long term goals?

The strategic practitioner is in control of every aspect of the grievance process. He or she is a professional who knows where the case is going, how it will look when it gets there, and why it is at this stage. The strategic practitioner is not always ready to face workplace disaster. None of us are. But when it strikes, the strategic practitioner will be position to go to the rule book, to evaluate the options, and to fearlessly control the process as it matures. The strategic practitioner is one who brings this expertise to the job, and with it, their passion and commitment to the role of problem solver.

About the Author

Elaine Newman - Handling Labour Relations Disasters

Elaine Newman, Ba, LL.B., LL.M., called to the bar in Ontario in 1979. Elaine is a very experienced full-time arbitrator and mediator, specializing in labour relations, employment, and human rights matters. She is a teacher, an author, and frequent speaker on labour, employment and human rights issues. Elaine served as Associate Director of the LLM program in Labour Relations and Employment Law at Osgoode Hall Law School 2002 to 2008. She was lead instructor for the Advanced Dispute Resolution Course at Atkinson Faculty, York University for ten years, where she taught the Ethics of Mediation course, and the Advanced Practicum course. She is a frequent guest speaker at the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre (IRC), and is lead instructor of the IRC’s Strategic Grievance Handling program. Elaine is the author of the online course, “Practical Ethics for Working Mediators”, offered by the ADR Institute of Ontario.  Her textbook, Preventing Violence in the Workplace, is published by Lancaster House, Toronto.

Integrating Organizational Change: Scholarship and Work Practice

Introduction

Researchers and practitioners both seek to explain phenomena in the real world and to give an account for the data they consider relevant. There are opportunities to understand current issues as they relate to future trends, generating dialogue to assist research, while providing an opportunity for each to gain insight from each other’s point of view. The purpose of this paper is to form a rich and integrated understanding of the phenomena of organizational change within a project environment, exploring the frameworks upon which classical change theory is developed. I discuss the role of research and the application of research findings in this area of study, based on one Canadian utility company’s performance with change initiatives. I will offer advice on the need for a more integrated conceptual framework between scholarly knowledge and practitioner experience in working with organizational change. A review of multidisciplinary literature on change management models is presented in conjunction with this framework. The framework is then applied as a basis for deriving the effectiveness of the change management implementation during one organization’s change initiative.

The Need for Better Integration

Bentz and Shapiro’s (1999) view is that society has moved toward being a knowledge-based society, and structured inquiry of a scholarly kind has come to shape knowledge in every field. The notion of scholarship does not just represent knowing the subject matter of a discipline; it’s equally about competence in the specific methods of scholarly inquiry in the field. There is tremendous value in bringing together the contribution of the scholar and practitioner, promising significant gains in knowledge of the world and improvements to interventions in it. Each role has its contributions and limitations. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection. The practitioner brings experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge. The scholarship of integration makes connections between the disciplines, and explores the wider relevance and usefulness of knowledge.

Scholarly work and their results need to be relevant and of value to the requirements of practitioners. Practitioner knowledge and experience-based feelings should recognize the value in establishing an epistemology of practice that indicates when or why certain interventions should be used for this partnership to work. In other words, the skills, rules, and knowledge of human behavior should be used by practitioners to develop approaches that are compatible with multiple ways of knowing or sources of information. Adding to this contradictory relationship, the field of change management includes extensive popular management literature and an abundance of independent consultants who sell applications of one methodology as the solution to all organizational problems. This is often confusing to businesses, since consultants appear to have anecdotal evidence that their solutions work. What is often lacking is good scholarship that helps users of management consultants’ ideas know how to decide when and if the theory will solve their problems.

History – Informing Practice

There is no shortage of articles on organizational change theory, organizational development, or any number of the other descriptors for this field of study. However, the literature suggests that there is not one single approach or methodology that is comprehensive, yet concise enough to serve as a practical guide for those who wish to advance a change initiative in their practice or a comprehensive theory that understands organizations and guides change approaches (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995; Dunphy, 1981). This mutually exclusive approach to change has resulted in a mixture of change models that often fail to promote the general understanding of this subject matter, even though they all contain elements of truth.

One of the first individuals to study change theoretically was Lewin who, in the 1950s, led a group of social psychologists studying organizational change. They immersed themselves in a culture with managers inside organizations (Kleiner, 2008). Lewin and his colleagues described change as involving an unfreezing process, learning or changing process, and a refreezing process. Practitioners keen to follow Lewin’s (1947) approach to change concentrated on best practices for successful implementation of change, and provided models, frameworks, tools, and cases to assist practitioners in managing change more effectively (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Kotter, 1996).

There are a variety of ways of categorizing the majority of the change management models that provide prescriptive steps of what to do and what not to do (Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996). These models have largely been developed from the authors’ experiences with companies either as consultants and/or researchers. Groupings of change management models are available that provide specific diagnostic tools and approaches to support key change management issues, such as resistance to change (Eriksson, 2004; Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979), rates of adoption of change for individuals (Huy, 2001), communications (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995), and organizational culture (Schein, 1984; 1992; 2009).

Many authors, scholars, and researchers have described the steps involved in planning and managing change. Kotter (1996) described eight steps to transforming an organization, including establishing a sense of urgency, forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision, communicating the vision, empowering others to act on the vision, planning for and creating short-term wins, consolidating improvements and producing still more change, and institutionalizing new approaches. Ackerman-Anderson and Anderson (2001) describe a change leadership process that is continuous and non-linear, and incorporates an evaluation component. Their steps include: preparing to lead the change, creating vision, commitment and capacity, assessing the situation and determining design requirements, designing the desired state, analyzing the impact, planning and organizing for implementation, implementing the change, celebrating and integrating the new state, and learning and course-correcting. Authors Van de Ven and Poole (1995) addressed change from the perspective of life cycle changes, teleological, dialectical, and evolutionary changes. Their conclusion suggests that each theory is typically incomplete in its description and classification of change because organizations do not exist within a vacuum and one theory can address the assumptions of another.

The field of organizational development and change is widely known for its large spectrum of theories that strive to understand and explain individual, group, and organizational change. Historically, these diverse theories have haphazardly combined and crossed levels of abstraction and analysis. Porras and Robertson (1987) developed two types of organizational development theory that help to exemplify the ongoing tension between the theory of change and the practice of changing. They stated that the findings of academic research associated with change theory should inform practice. Their contribution of implementation theory focuses on the intervention activities needed to execute effective planned change.

Understanding organizational change requires more than one theory (Dunphy, 1981; Dunphy & Stace, 1988). Dunphy further considered the components of a comprehensive theory of organizational change. Frameworks such as this allow us to evaluate theoretical approaches and determine whether the theory is complete, allow us to compare theoretical traditions, and determine whether they are similar or different. This provides a greater understanding about the ways in which we would direct our attention in analysis with regard to internal or external factors affecting the organization, and to the levels of analysis with key groups within the workforce.

Though there have been recent developments in refining change theory, it is important to note that my use of change theory in this paper is done in a very broad sense. Continual refinements in change theory will have strong parallel implications for implementation. Businesses are recognizing that change continues to build at an alarming rate, it is viewed as a continuous process, and that a systematic and disciplined structure is required for managing this tremendous amount of change.

Role of Research and Integration

Research is not often used as a basis for action in organizations and the experience of organizations are not used as a basis for generalizing theory. This has been, and remains, a significant learning opportunity for integration of scholarship and practice. The following example explores the nature of integration of scholarship and practice across the multi-disciplinary field of change management. This offers insights into the perspectives, methodologies, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship and practice. In the following section, I will (1) explore an understanding of what academic theories, models, and research inform the practice, (2) observe whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions; and, (3) comment on the ways in which an integration of scholarship and research be integrated into the practice of organizational change.

By carrying out research, focusing on a real business situation, interesting results are often found. The change process evaluated in this paper describes how a large Canadian utility developed and approved an information technology strategy that called for replacement of business systems and processes. To commence implementation of this information technology strategy, the company initiated a business transformation strategy. In order to achieve this transformation strategy, a project was put in place to replace core, enterprise, information technology systems, and transform the corporate culture. What companies have realized today is that there is a need to successfully manage this tremendous amount of organizational change in order to remain competitive and to improve business performance.

The question this case scenario asks is: Did this organization use formal change management techniques based on organizational change theory to ensure the success of change initiatives? And, I ask, why should an integrated conceptual framework and methodology for managing change initiatives be considered an important discipline in the business environment? For a change project to be successfully managed, the change it creates must be approached in the same disciplined manner (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002). A number of change management and project management models adopted by businesses today are designed to assist change projects that are intended to create new business processes or transform existing ones to accomplish major goals that projects bring to the organization. With the variety of models, frameworks, and theoretical perspectives available (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Beer & Nohia, 2000; Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996), many agree that organizational transformations involving large-scale, strategic change require a planned approach, a road map for providing direction on how to arrive at an organization’s desired state.

Given a common definition for change management as a set of processes that are employed to ensure that significant changes are implemented in an orderly, controlled, and systematic fashion to effect organizational change (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Cowan-Sahadath, 2010; Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002) and the review of literature and research on organizational change theory described earlier, I have shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to customize and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change.

My work is informed by my experience as an internal change management consultant. Incorporating expertise offered by scholars, in addition to practitioner experience, links relevant theory to a series of concrete and practical steps that one can execute via an integrated framework. Questions I might start with include: Would you design and implement major organization change based on an approach or framework that is supported by research and validation? Will the framework accelerate the achievement of your stated outcomes?

I now present a high-level overview of an Integrated Change Framework (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) that includes an integration of multidisciplinary theories and research to help plan, design, and implement organization and people changes. It organizes processes for moving the organization from its current status to where it needs to be to ensure continued success in the business. As a framework, it does not specify what to change; instead, it provides guidance for how to change so that you accomplish your intended business outcomes while simultaneously engaging the people in the organization in positive ways. The Framework is organized using a project management methodology with each of the phases identified clearly along with their respective activities and tasks and incorporates change management processes.

An Integrated Change Framework

The elements of the Integrated Change Framework represent the inherent logic and flow of activities for leading and achieving real change. This conceptual framework provides a set of coherent ideas organized for communication purposes, to assist in understanding the interconnections of activities and elements, and provides a basis for thinking about what we do and what it means. The author developed this integrated conceptual framework for project change leadership (Figure 1). Figure 1 depicts the conceptual framework of this change management approach, set in the context of a dynamic organizational environment, focusing on the context of leaders at work, and subject to the employer’s organizational change agenda and corporate strategy. The role for leadership operates at every intersection of the framework, however of particular focus in this framework is the focus on leaderships role within the change management framework.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change
Examining the Business Environment

During the implementation of this integrated change management framework, the business recalled past projects and change initiatives in which a change initiative faltered because the vision did not provide others with the necessary direction or support to make the change happen. There were examples where people or groups were more relationship-driven, yet nothing concrete was accomplished. Given the complexity of the example discussed in this paper, the leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management techniques, training, and project staff management processes.

Change Management Framework

A structured approach to change is used to describe the management of change in this business. It represents aligning relevant combinations of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems in the organization in order to make change happen in a structured, systematic manner. It involves elements of the company’s mission, vision, and values, and a project management methodology providing the foundation for all change in the organization. All change initiatives are grounded in and demonstrate clear and strong support to one or more of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. The business case for change identified what combination(s) of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems were not aligned and the implications for the misalignment on the business for fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values.

The desired future articulates what a stronger alignment of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems would actually look like and how that alignment would strengthen the organization in fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values. The readiness level of key stakeholders (those directly affected by the change or those who have influence over others) must be assessed, including: how they perceive the benefits from the change, their dissatisfaction with the existing situation, how they perceive the effort required to make the change, and how they perceive the challenges associated with the change. This assessment influences the strategies and plans that need to be followed in dealing with key stakeholders. The strategy addresses the fundamental “how” in achieving the desired future, given the readiness levels of key stakeholders. In the face of strong support for the change, the strategy may be to drive it forward in a short period of time, with a minimum level of engagement. In the face of strong resistance, however, the strategy may involve a higher degree of engagement over a longer timeframe. The plan to get to the desired future details the results to be achieved, actions to be taken to get there, accountability for those actions, a time frame for completion and measures to assess progress.

Implementation is the movement forward with the strategy and plan with a strong focus on measurement of both the processes and results, and a willingness to consider revisions to the plan in the face of unforeseen. Sustainment establishes processes and ownership of those processes to ensure against slippage of the alignment that has been achieved and its results, so that they become an ongoing part of the organization and how it works. Lessons learned identifies what is working and not working and why in bringing about change. It assesses both the process and the results and needs to be conducted at periodic stages of alignment initiatives, not just at its conclusion.

Project Management Framework

The leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management plans, employee engagement, and management accountabilities. Integrated strategic change strategies and organizational systems are coordinated in response to external and internal influences. An example would be a strategic change plan that is developed to help employees manage the transition between a current strategy and organization design and the desired future strategic orientation.

In the early stages of the project life cycle there was an opportunity to build a foundation for managing the change, assessing how the impact would affect the people and the organization through project sponsorship. To establish a realistic change framework for managing change at this company, they needed to change the way they would lead change. One of the leading contributors to project success was strong, visible sponsorship and leadership. The literature on change leadership implies that leaders have a responsibility to guide an organization through a course of change by providing direction and support throughout the process (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007). Leaders are encouraged to demonstrate change leadership behaviours, set a vision, and communicate effectively in a way that their organization understands and will want to follow the new direction of change (Kotter, 2005). In this review, the change management and project management models adopted by this organization, integrated the management of the tremendous amount of change the project brings to the organization. Management of this project and the changing business environment was best managed by focused project management and effectively managing the changes through a formal framework.

Organizational Performance

While the project management and change management practitioner communities suggest that integrated frameworks are applied for managing change in organizations (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002; Kotter, 1996), the research community has been slow to recognize the interaction and value between change management and project management in implementing change (Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Thomas & Mullaly, 2008). I suggested earlier that one approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to adapt and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change. The context in which this organization operates, including its history and culture, have a significant impact on its ability to manage change. It was important for a company to examine the business’ current circumstance and recent history and the challenges they represent to the successful implementation of a change initiative. Cultural differences are legitimate outgrowths of the distinct nature of the work, and some are unnecessary “silos” that get in the way of operational efficiency and co-operation.

In light of all of these challenges—past, current, and future—effective change management will represent the most important prerequisite to success with future change initiatives. It has been essential that the organization understands the cultural challenges faced in times of such rapid implementation and change. Reviewing these challenges and the systems and contexts that affect the operation of the business, provides a foundation of understanding on which to base research and in selecting change management frameworks grounded in theory. This understanding leads to practical application that supports intended business needs and outcomes.

Context for Integrating Research and Practice for Success

The purpose of this paper suggested that a deeper understanding of the complexity of change initiatives be understood; and, exploring the change management frameworks upon which classical change theory has been developed, would explain how and why particular things happen or do not happen. Some of these theories are vague conceptualizations about what will happen if we act in a certain way, in a certain situation, and what we might expect from others. But many of the theories we hold are more complex and express our understandings of, for example, how organizations work, and how organizations and people react to change.

In order to link theoretical knowledge to practice, as a scholar practitioner, I have begun to see the clear link from theory and what works within the organization. Without this experience though, theory can become something that seems abstract. From a practitioner perspective, with this particular example in mind, I can determine that the change frameworks have been developed based on theory, however complex they may appear. Essentially, theory helps to explain a situation, describe what is happening, explain why is it happening, and often, predict what is likely to happen next. This is of tremendous value to the practitioner. In addition, I observed whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions. The Integrated Change Framework applied in this example incorporated process steps that design the implementation, and plans the initial event. Internal consultants and leaders view the initial event or intervention as a non-linear and continuous change activity and assume there is much to learn from the experience. Throughout the implementation, internal consultants and leaders observe the results, often taking time as a group to discuss what is happening and how the implementation might be adjusted in the future. Adjustments and course corrections are also made, based on experience with similar events and past implementations. After the event, there is a debrief on how the process went, decision on whether or not to continue to develop further concepts, and planning for the next steps. There is also discussion regarding what patterns were observed and how they relate to past observations, not going as far as developing formal theory, but certainly continuing to build our own theories on how the organization works.

Experienced practitioners already know many meaningful practices. If academic research can add to these, it must proceed from a theory of what experienced practitioners fail to know and why they fail to know it. Research energy can be invested in, improving the understanding of highly-skilled practitioners, practitioners with limited skills or experience, and academic researchers. Adopting a variety of theories in this work offers us, as scholar practitioners, the ability to make sense of a situation, the ability to generate ideas about what is going on, and why things are as they are; using theory can help to justify actions and explain practice. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection and the practitioner contributes through experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge within the organization.

 

About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.

 

References

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Decision Making and the Limits of Rationality

Decision making is a central activity in organizational life. Independent of one’s role or profession, the ability to make effective decisions is a core competence that must be practiced daily. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that we’re not particularly skilled at making decisions, especially the complex, strategic ones. According to Professor Paul Nutt (1999, 2010), approximately half of the decisions made in organizations fail. In his exploration of hundreds of strategic decisions made in North American and European organizations, Nutt found that upwards of fifty percent of decisions are abandoned, judged by those charged with implementing them as unworthy. Why the high failure rate? Perhaps the answer lies in our understanding of what decision making actually is. In other words, perhaps the assumptions we hold around decision making, how it is best facilitated, and our cognitive abilities have a strong influence on how we practice it. Perhaps those assumptions are guiding us to faulty practices.

If the way that we practice decision making is based on our assumptions around effective decision making, how might our preferred models and modes shift as we adopt alternative perspectives? Decision making has been explored from many points of view and those views have evolved, in part, with the dominant worldviews of the day. Below I explore a sampling of those perspectives with the purpose of uncovering the contributions and limitations of each. Based on the insights gained, I offer suggestions for how we might tip the balance toward more fruitful decision making in our fast-paced, contemporary workplaces.

The Rational Systems Perspective

Early perspectives viewed decision making as a rational choice, based on a logical and sequential cause and effect analysis. With the assumption that environments were knowable and predictable, the “economic man” as decision maker was presumed to identify quantifiable problems, search for plausible options, prioritize those options according to predefined criteria, and select the optimized choice with certainty (Miller & Wilson, 2006).

Based on these rational assumptions, classicists such as Taylor (1911) and Weber (1947, in Dessler, 1980) were preoccupied with designing jobs and organizational forms that enabled rational and efficient decision making. The assumption was that codified rules, predictable relationships, set jobs, and clear lines of authority would enable organizations to make rational decisions with machine-like proficiency. In turn, employees were viewed as mechanical parts that could be expected to perform as directed.

Weber’s (1947, in Dessler, 1980) bureaucracy granted decision rights to individuals on the basis of their position within the hierarchy. In turn, employees were bound by predefined decision rules, which were assumed to produce accurate responses. Taylor (1911) rigorously analyzed work patterns to determine the one best way for structuring tasks. To ensure consistency, he carefully selected employees and trained them to perform tasks, as directed. For both Weber and Taylor, compliance was sought through the use of directives, tightly defined jobs, explicit training, and financial incentives (Scott & Davis, 2007).

To summarize, rational managers sought stable and predictable attitudes, skills, and behaviours. Decision making was assumed to be a relatively straightforward process, bound by the parameters of one’s job. Decisions were shaped, controlled, and coordinated through a system of carefully constructed job rules, decision rights, and norms of conduct.

The Natural Systems Perspective

In the 1920s and 1930s pioneering theorists Elton Mayo (1933) and Kurt Lewin (1947) saw that, in addition to the formal organization, an informal and unpredictable organization exists. In this informal organization, human aims and needs have a significant impact on attitudes and effort. Indeed Mayo’s Hawthorne studies, originally based on the rational hypothesis that lighting could be optimally adjusted to support worker productivity, illuminated quite another reality. As worker productivity increased independent of the lighting levels, the researchers discerned that social conditions—group norms, supervision, and relationships—were critical to employee effort. Theorists also began to note that rules and procedures could produce unintended, and in some cases, deleterious consequences. Such was the case with the incentives designed to pressure slower workers to increase their pace at Hawthorne Electric. Ironically, the incentives had the opposite effect; it was the slower workers who pressured the faster employees to slow down through the process of binging (Dessler, 1980; Scott & Davis, 2007).

The discovery that employee effort is a function of more than directives, rules, and rewards exposed the limits to the rationalist paradigm. Recognizing that people are limited by both human and organizational factors, March and Simon (1958) offered an alternative view of the organizational decision maker; one where employees identify satisfactory rather than optimal solutions. Burdened by incomplete information, unclear decision criteria, limited time, and partial perspective, decisions may be rational, but only from the unique perspective of each decision maker’s aims, role, and reach (Miller & Wilson, 2006; Scott & Davis, 2007).

A central question for theorists therefore became: How to ensure compliance when humans are motivated by a wide array of personal and work related factors? While March and Simon (1958) agreed that decision making boundaries were important to distributed decision making, they reasoned that decision rules could not be pre-programmed for every eventuality. Rather, novel and complex challenges require rigorous and thoughtful analysis of ambiguous data. Here, they reasoned, decision makers require the requisite “attitudes, habits and state of mind” (Simon, 1976, in Dessler, 1980, p. 41) that can only be developed through enculturation and education (Miller & Wilson, 2006).

To summarize, as the rational paradigm gave way, theorists recognized that decision making could not necessarily be bound by formal job-related rules and protocols. Not only were social factors at play, but rules and incentives often produced unintended consequences. Adding to the complexity, pre-programmed responses were impossible to predict for novel, hard-to-define challenges. With the aim of creating organizational predictability and control, theorists prescribed a well designed system of decision rights for programmable decisions, supplemented with efforts to develop perspective and judgment amongst those charged with more complex tasks.

The Open Systems Perspective

With the emergence of the open systems perspective following World War II, many theorists began studying the interrelationships between subsystems, as well as the relationship of systems to their environments. Studies by Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) in the United States and Burns and Stalker (1961) in the United Kingdom, set out to explore a number of open system tenants. Both sets of authors, working independently, found that organizations operating in stable environments tend to develop simple, formal structures, with centralized and disciplined information sharing and decision making. On the other hand, organizations operating in more complex environments developed more organic structures with informal communication patterns and decentralized decision making. Contingency theory was thus born, providing theorists with a wider lens from which to explore how environmental complexity (or perceptions thereof) shape organization form, decision rights and information processing patterns (Scott & Davis, 2007).

Building from contingency theory, Daft and Weick (1984) developed a theory of organizations as interpretive systems to model how managerial assumptions about the complexity of their environments shape decision making practices. Those adhering to a rationalist perspective are more likely to assume that the environment is knowable and predictable. These managers collect predefined data and assess it against specific metrics to find the “right” answers. On the other hand, managers who assume that the environment is not knowable or analyzable, enact their environments by using trial and error approaches. Independent of whether managers see the environment as knowable or chaotic, those who assume the environment is competitive will be more active and apply greater rigour in their scanning, interpreting, and deciding processes than those who assume the environment is benevolent. In addition to highlighting the important role that managers play in capturing, translating, and responding to environmental cues, Daft and Weick’s model calls attention to trial and error processes for deciding that might be more applicable to complex, ambiguous environments.

Applying contingency thinking to decision making orientations, Mintzberg and Westley (2001) identified three orientations to decision making. Thinking first approaches work best when the issue is clear, the data are reliable and equivocal, and the context is unchanging and known. Here, rational cause-and-effect reasoning works well. Seeing first approaches involve envisioning and prototyping solutions so that they can be tested, analyzed, and improved. Doing first approaches involve acting and experimenting in order to learn before deciding. The authors suggest that seeing first and doing first approaches are essential when the context is ambiguous, many elements need to be combined into creative solutions, tacit knowledge needs to be shared, and the only real way of knowing is by doing and reflecting.

In summary, a key assumption underpinning open systems theory is that systems evolve in direct relationship to the complexity of their environments. Complex environments are less predictable, highly competitive, and in constant flux. In turn, complex organizational systems need to be more fluid, capable of taking in, sharing and processing information, and more responsive to their environments. Decision making processes therefore need to be more iterative with prototyping and trial and error replacing, or perhaps supplementing, pre-programmed methodologies.

The Chaos Perspective

Turning the rationalist perspective of decision making on its head, Cohen, March, and Olsen (1972) describe organizations as anarchies. Anarchies, as in the case of the universities they studied, are defined as chaotic systems rife with unclear goals, authority clashes, and stakeholders with competing interests. The authors likened the decision making arena to a garbage can. Goals, issues, players and their solutions are tossed into the can. Depending on the contents of the can, some issues, solutions, and people stick and surface, while others get lost. Cohen and colleagues suggest that some organizations, or even all organizations part of the time, are a messy collection of “choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work” (p. 2). Recognizing the absurd view that the garbage can metaphor offers, the authors point out that while the garbage can process does not produce optimal solutions, ” it does enable choices to be made and problems resolved, even when the organization is plagued with goal ambiguity and conflict, with poorly understood problems that wander in and out of the system… and with decision makers who may have other things on their minds” (p. 16).

Employing yet another analogy, this time a trading zone, Kellogg, Orlikowski, and Yates (2006) suggest that in dynamic and volatile environments, such as the internet marketing firm they studied, decisions are best made through an emergent, ongoing exchange of ideas that get adopted and altered over time. Just like traders interacting to exchange goods, so too do organizational members need a space and process for exchanging ideas, work progress, and solutions. The notion of trade or exchange does not require shared goals or meaning amongst the parties and does not presume permanent outcomes. Rather, in conditions of uncertainty and change, the authors suggest that collaborators are best served by a trading zone, whereby they can prototype and display their ideas for others to build on, adapt, or even omit, as the work progresses in “dynamic alignment” (p. 36). The authors claim that the trading zone analogy becomes important as traditional bureaucratic structures give way to more dynamic, fluid forms, which are better suited to today’s complex, fast moving environments.

In summary, the chaos perspective assumes the decision environment to be complex and the players to be guided by their unique needs, abilities, and perspectives. Instead of trying to reduce ambiguity to simplify the data set, chaos approaches embrace it. While the garbage can model favours perseverance, the trading zone analogy provides decision makers with joint space and common tools to display and combine ideas from which decisions emerge. Given the volatility of the context, permanence is not sought or valued. Rather, the decisions themselves are assumed to evolve and shift, in dynamic alignment as needs and conditions shift.

The Power Perspective

While the concepts of decision making, authority, and power are closely linked, some theorists have chosen to focus on power in decision making in its own right. Here, theorists have studied decision making from the lens of power brokers competing for control of scarce resources. Decision making is viewed as being “far removed from the coolly logical appraisal and selection of alternatives. Rather, it is at the center of a web of political machinations and dynamic power exchanges, the true nature of which is not fully recognized, even by those involved” (Miller & Wilson, 2006, p. 474).

From the power perspective, stakeholder groups engage in bargaining behaviors that often lead to sub-optimized compromises with winners and losers. In an early, yet influential study, Hickson et al. (1971) found that the complexity and politically of decisions do indeed shape the decision process and outcomes. When decisions were relatively straightforward and politically benign, a fluid, streamlined process was more apt to occur. On the other hand, politically tumultuous decisions were more apt to follow a sporadic process, with delays, disruptions, and uneven use of information. The researchers found that in approximately one third of the cases, the decisions had been made before the process was completed, or in some cases even started, due in part to the covert maneuvering of powerful interest groups.

In summary, the power perspective assumes the environment to be competitive, with parties vying for their interests to be met, often at the expense of the others. Decision making is therefore a strategic process of building allies and winning small victories, all in pursuit of one’s ultimate aim.

Conclusion

While each and every day employees make decisions vested by the authority of their position, decision making in organizations is not a straightforward endeavor. Returning to Paul Nutt’s (2010) analysis of managerial decisions, he concludes that, all in all, decision makers do not employ good process. Typically, decisions are made in isolation, with decision makers over estimating the clarity of their challenges, the reliability of their data, the effectiveness of their solutions, and the commitment of the implementers.

What can we make of this? With each turn of the viewfinder from the rational perspective, through systems, chaos, and power perspectives, we come to understand that decision making is not a rational, choice based process. Daft and Weick’s (1984) interpretive systems, Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) garbage can metaphor, and Hickson and colleagues’ (1971) power dynamics all contribute to bursting the bubble of the rational paradigm; first logical reasoning, followed by the optimal choice. Rather, decision makers are influenced, sometimes blinded, by perspective, need, and social/political forces. At times, and in some situations, interpretation follows choice; actions are taken and supportive reasoning follows. Alternatively, solutions may emerge, as in the case of the trading zone, following trial and error prototyping.

The good news is that organizational theorists and practitioners will continue to wrestle with the many sides of decision making from fresh perspectives. The gift of the newer interpretive approaches is that they embrace ambiguity and invite decision makers to experiment, act, and learn. If, as open systems theory predicts, systems evolve in direct relationship to the complexity of their environments, then any approach that enables decision makers to wrestle with the complexity of their challenges will serve them well. Interestingly, this is essentially what Paul Nutt found. While practices enabling participation and learning were the least used in his study sample, they were the most effective in producing workable solutions with staying power. Given our less than stellar track record with the rational perspective of decision making, perhaps it is time to make a turn of the viewfinder, and in so doing, expand our decision making repertoire.

 

About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott

Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting. When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions. Brenda is an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, Organizational Design and HR Decision Making. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research. Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance. She is a graduate of Queen’s University and lives in Kingston with her husband and two sons.

 

References

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