Communicative Coworkership

Part IV: What has been told?

If we are to develop a thorough understanding of how communication generates organization we must know more about the unexplored communication of coworkers – not only in relation to leadership, but also in relation to other organizational processes.

(Heide & Simonsson, 2011, p. 202)

Within organizational research, communication is no longer seen as just another of several factors in service of organizing. A perspective that it is through communication which organizations are composed, designed and maintained has evolved, and has been termed Communicative Constitution of Organization (CCO) (Coreen et al, 2011; Putnam & Nicotera, 2009; McPhee & Zaug, 2000). Associated scholars encourage a constructive dialogue between communication and organizational literature to create a more integrated understanding of the role of communication, in order to create meaning, form, and even the possibility of organizational life (Coreen et al, 2011). It is from this approach that we can understand a research project such as Communicative Organizations, which creates an opportunity to change the epistemological and ontological positions on organizing (Nothhaft & von Platen, 2015).

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The notion of a communicative leadership exists both in academia and in practice (Simonsson, 2002; Axäll, 2004). The concept is based on the idea that modern organizations tend to be less hierarchical, with a view of the leader as a person who cannot make sense on their own or impose their interpretation on employees. In its place, this is seen as a social mutual process, dependent on dialogue between managers (understood as the official position) and coworkers (Simonsson, 2002).

On the other hand, leadership researchers recognize that leadership is about influence, and therefore there is always an unequal balance of power between a leader and a coworker, as for example manifested in that the manager’s superior position offers interpretive prerogative (Axäll, 2004). Although organizations are dependent on coworkers who are motivated, productive and healthy, research from a coworker perspective is underrepresented in organizational research and in the field of strategic communication (Heide & Simonsson, 2011).

Tengblad (2007) however, argues the viewpoint of coworkership as a field of knowledge itself, more than as an appendage to the leadership – and organizational development literature. The idea of coworkership can be linked to the organization being post-bureaucratic where the manager is stressed as a facilitator for independent employees, which places new demands on both the coworker and the employer; coworkers expect more than a salary out of the employment organization such as development of their professional skills and expertise, while the coworker on the other hand is expected from organizational management to be participative and socially competent (Tengblad, 2007).

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Ciulla (2004) on the other hand, argues how this form of demands on employees are not realistic, since they are not given the conditions required in order to comply with the demands. The participation and engagement of the coworker thus becomes a notion that has poor value, in that it falls in priority when the traditional instrumental values, such as time and money, in effect are the most valued in the organization (Simonsson, 2002). The concept of participation entails ironies, contradictions and paradoxes when coworkers on the one hand are expected to show commitment and involvement, but on the other hand rarely have a decision-making mandate (Ciulla, 2004; Stohl & Cheney, 2001). These strains clarify how the power aspect is important to highlight in order to understand tensions that exist within the organizational life of the coworker, as well as their consequences.

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Communicative Coworkership

Part II: Organizational Tensions

There is currently not much written about the communicative coworker, and therefore we do not grasp the consequences of these mounting expectations on the employee to be communicative in everyday organizational life; not only actively engaged in his or her work assignments, but also expected to participate in overall organizational dialogue. The lack of research means that we do not grasp how the coworker perceives, experiences and enacts these expectations. The concept of a communicative coworker is not unproblematic since it places high demands on employees in addition to skills in their professional roles, where they are also expected to be skilled communicators both in relation to colleagues and managers, and also to external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and media.

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Simonsson (n.d.) describes how managers often get training, support and coaching in creating their identity as a leader, something coworkers on the other hand seldom receive in creating their identities as communicative coworkers. Ciulla (2004, p. 5) argues how employees in today’s organizations perhaps get more responsibility however not the tools required, such as time or knowledge, which she calls ”bogus empowerment”. The importance of employee participation is thus constantly put in the background when instrumental values ​​such as time and money, based on short-term goals, in the end is what is valued most for the organization (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn & Ganesh, 2010; Simonsson, 2002).

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This form of organizational tension between the expectations put on the coworker and the perceived work situation, looking at the employee’s perspective of the tensions, is understudied in organizational communication research (Trethway & Ashcraft, 2004) and the understanding of the coworker’s perspective is generally underrepresented in a management and leadership oriented research field (Heide & Simonsson, 2011; Tengblad, 2007). Despite a trend towards the post-bureaucratic organization, where hierarchy is flattened and the coworker is considered to have a more active role in relation to managers and directors as well as ambassador of the organization externally (Tengblad, 2007), there is always an unequal balance of power between employee and manager. Leadership in itself is about influence, which inherently entails an asymmetric power relationship (Axäll, 2004).

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Communicative Coworkership, Organizational studies

Part I: Communicative Coworkership – What is expected from us as coworkers?

The field of strategic communication is imbued with concept such as dialogue, participation and employee engagement, with communication policies and strategic documents employing this vocabulary (Heide and Simonsson, 2011). The communicative empowerment of a growingly self-dependent coworker, is based on the idea that employees should actively participate in dialogue and meaning creation, give and receive feedback on their actions and achievement, share knowledge and ideas, ask for support and listen to others, as well as act as ambassadors for the organization at large (Simonsson, n.d.).

Illustration by Anna Handell

Today in organizations as well as organization studies, we find increased expectations on the coworker to be engaged and participate in decision-making, presumably due to less hierarchical organizations which raises the status of the coworker in regards to management (Alvesson, 2004). The communicative organization is often cited as the modern organization that gives employees more agency and power, making he or she more participative and engaged, which in turn will create a successful business (Coreen, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011).

Illustration by Chris Gregori

This engaged employee requires more communication with and between all organizational members (Stohl and Cheney, 2001) since being able to interpret information and engage in creative dialogues are seen as capacities closely related to learning and innovation processes (Heide & Simonsson, 2011). The communicative organization is therefore considered to require communicative leadership, where the leader develops and controls the operations with communicative methods (Simonsson, 2002). In this organization where the central social practice is communication, it is not only common to talt about communicative leadership, but also communicative coworkership (Axäll, 2004; Hedman Monstad, 2015; Simonsson, n.d., Sveriges kommunikatörer, 2015), with the term communicative coworkership derived primarily from a practitioner’s area.Illustration by Jack & Wolf

The communicative leadership is considered to be dependent on communicative coworkership for dialogue to be conducted on all operational levels, since participation and communicative employees are seen as essential for the creation of value dialogue (Axäll, 2004) and considered to create effective organizations.

But what does this really mean from a coworker’s perspective?

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