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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Organization and leadership

How do you see communication? It matters for the open office!

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In line with stakeholders’ expectations about openness and transparency, there is a prevailing academic perspective on communication called the ”ritual” model or creating common meaning, where communication is seen as a circular process where individuals and groups together and continuously create meaning (Jansson, 2009), and the perspective is lifted as the modern and ideal (see, inter alia, Varey, 2000; Axley, 1984; Botan & Taylor, 2004). The opposite is depicted as a transmission model where communication is seen as linear transmission, which can be linked to the traditional rational approach where a given input produces a given outcome. Communication was seen here as one-way and with that perception of the staff, the open work area was a way to monitor but also perhaps a way to easily distribute information, while the open office today can be seen as a way to facilitate interaction by lowering barriers for employees to interact with each other, no walls in between. The threshold for providing feedback is said to be lower if you can ”throw” a comment over the table, than if you have to go out of your room and knock on the employee’s office. On the other hand, one can imagine that there are digital channels that may have the same basic function, to quickly throw away an e-mail, skype messages or the like, while the faceless communication can open up for misinterpretation.

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 With Weicks (2004) theory of sense-making, communication in the workplace is understood as a way to create understanding and meaning around work, individual and social activity, which is necessary for agents to have the opportunity to interpret. Weick argues (2004, p 543) ”Those who forget that sensemaking is a social process miss a constant substrate that shapes interpretations and interpreting.”, and we can imagine the importance of relationships, group membership and informal communication for the process. Lowered thresholds for interaction can promote relationships which are part of the individual’s creation of identity and identification with the organization (Gomez & Ballard, 2013; Hatch and Schultz, 2009). Having the employees feel connected to the collective is a social cement that can create motivation.

One should however be aware that there can always be a transmission perspective to communication in an organization, and to new channels such as changing the type of office space from closed to open, never in itself can entails a two-way communication, but it is how they are used. An open office environment can never on its own constitute an open and transparent organizational culture, but it can be a tool to promote it .

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Organization and leadership

Is your office open? Let’s see what it really is saying.

BildWhat would happen if employees in an organization did not somehow see each other, didn’t talk to each other, did not cooperate with each other? The thought doesn’t seem very realistic today, there is simply no such organization! An organization without communication does not exist since the communication permeates all activities (see, among others, Putnam, Phillips & Chapman, 1996; McPhee & Zaug, 2000; Taylor, 1993; Weick, 2004). Hatch and Schultz (2009, p. 121) argues ”Top managers need to listen and respond to both internal and external stakeholders if they want to formulate a strategy that employees can and will deliver”. A question for academia and practitioners thus becomes how to promote a valuable communication within the organization.

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One factor that has implications for communication in an organization is how you organize. The work environment is important for an organization since the business needs to attract and retain qualified personnel in a competitive world. The organization is dependent on employees who are motivated, productive and healthy. Despite the environmental effect on the staff, there are few scientific studies of how office types affect employees (Westerlund, nd). The coming posts will thus illuminate a theme that requires greater understanding, both from an organizational communicative perspective to foster communication that creates value and is meaningful for employees and for the organization, but also from a broader societal perspective, to provide more insight in areas such as architecture design, work environment and health psychology. The texts will discuss the open office landscape that reflects a trend in organizational environments which more and more organizations embrace (ibid). So, how can we understand the trend of open offices in organizations, and what are the implications on the communication?

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An introduction to Strategic Communication

Can an organization be open and transparent?

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A current theme when discussing organizations and their communication, in general as in the academic field, is the importance of being open and transparent (see among others Falkheimer & Heide, 2011; Fombrun & Van Riel referenced in Cornelissen, 2011; Berg, 2011; Werntoft, 2013). Political institutions describe their activities as striving for transparency as seen with everything from the Swedish State Bank (Riksbanken) to the NGO Sida, making general gambit regarding the importance of transparency (Svensson, 2008; Sida, 2012). One reason lies in how technological developments are perceived to have expedited communication processes, such as how the media can quickly spread negative news about a company or authority, and that both the organization and stakeholders quickly need access to information and expertise to handle the situation. Falkheimer and Heide (2011) argue that the opportunities available to store and access a wealth of information has created expectations on organizations to be transparent. It can stem from for example to prevent corruption which could jeopardize an organization’s entire raison d’être, such as the United Nations which should reflect international law (United Nations, 2013).

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Openness and transparency is in line with the prevailing academic perspective on communication, namely the mutual creation of meaning or ”ritual” model, where communication is seen as a circular process where individuals and groups together and continuously creates meaning (see for example Jansson, 2009). Varey (2000), Axley (1984) and Botan and Taylor (2004) highlight this perspective as the modern and ideal, in contrast to the transmission model where communication is seen as linear transfer. The authors seem to be missing a power aspect of communication, where even a perspective based on shared meaning making can be used to control and exert control over others. Deetz and Mumbay (1990 referenced in McPhee & Zaug, 2000) points out ”All communication necessarily involves the use of power […].” An organization’s communication will thus always involve a production and reproduction of power. Moreover both perspectives should be needed to understand how organizations communicate and why, as this is based on cultural norms and traditions, despite Varey’s (2000) argument that the transmission perspective is out of date.

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That an organization is transparent seems to be based on the idea that the organization is more democratic as everyone can get access to information. Falkheimer & Heide ( 2011) writes : ”[…] strategic communication is justified based on the argument that it promotes openness and transparency between members of the organization and between the organization and the environment. The argument is based on a non-authoritarian and democratic view of organizations and society based on secrecy, hierarchy and the withholding of information being valued negatively.”. We find this standard in the Swedish principle of public access where the government and other agencies are required by law to keep a great deal of information open and where transparency is considered positive (Regeringen, 2013). But the principle of openness has exceptions, e.g. documents relating to national security or protection of individuals. This in itself points out therefore, the risks associated with organizations’ openness, while it raises the question: if transparency is limited, is it really transparent? Is transparency something that an organization can strive for, but never totally achieve? The issue is likely normative. From an organizational communicative perspective the question evolves around the specific organization’s approach to leadership and strategy. If the leader is based on a ”top-down” perspective found in classical approach school (Whittington, 2002), the organization can hardly act with transparency since focus on is on individual leaders’ thought instead of communication processes. The corporate culture is therefore fundamental to whether transparency is possible.

Two settings can be found in the literature that may be linked to the two dominant communication perspective, where the pursuit of transparency and openness is seen as positive, which is based in ritual model of communication ideals, and one who sees transparency as impossible and more as a strategy for the conductors which is based on the transmission model. But if a modern organization should strive to be open and transparent, how is such a corporate culture created?

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Media and the history of political rhetoric

Why compare media?

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Communication employs a technical medium, each with different limits as well as vantages in terms of communication (Thompson 1995, p. 18). If we compare the news television broadcast with the digital news magazine, are there differences in how these two technical media can be used by propagandists to disperse their message? The television as a medium has a longer history of being a part of the domestic life, a main focus often in the living room where members of the home might gather to watch together after school or work. This can make television a given everyday source of information since it is linked with social tradition. The Internet is a medium with shorter history however today in many societies intertwined with private and public function and used both in the home and workplace, but perhaps with a screen more targeted at the individual than television traditionally is. Both mediums can however be considered mass media in their ability to reach big audiences.

Thompson talks about aspects of a medium such as fixation meaning how it allows the symbolic form to be fixed or preserved with various levels of durability (Thompson 1995, p. 19). The news television broadcast can be considered low in fixation since it would rely on memory or a recording device, while the digital news magazine as a written word has a higher level of fixation since the message is still there even after it has been read. However the magazine will most likely have replaced the spot of the message with a newer content as time goes by, thus lowering the durability. This could mean that a televised message is easier to warp by the audience since it is most likely further spread in their own words, while the written word can be shared as is in original form. Thompson also talks about reproduction in the medium’s capacity to produce multiple copies (Thompson 1995, p. 20) and if we consider the rapid sharing capacity of the digital news magazine, this can be an efficient way of no matter time of the day or geography of the receiver, passing along a certain content to people in one’s network, a feature built into the medium which the televised broadcast does not have. Thus transforming the receiver to a medium and a source which might entail more ethos (see for example Bitzer 1981, p. 235) and attention coming via a trustworthy friend than directly from the news magazine, as well as being a message the second receiver might not have considered otherwise.

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Producing television news broadcast is an expensive practice which limits who has the possibility of creating this form of transmission, while producing a digital news magazine can have different levels of production costs permitting more sources to have access to transmission. The reception is of significance for the effect of propaganda dissemination, which involves the audience’s cultural and social use of the medium and reading of the message. For instance Lull’s research has shown that family culture can influence how television is used socially and Dahlgren among others argues that social, political and economic factors influence how the Internet is used (Lull 1980, p. 319; Dahlgren 2005, p. 149). A message is also always read within a certain cultural context with norms and values effecting the interpretation of the content (see among others Thompson 1995, p.8). Askanius also points out how digital platforms are control by powerful institutions (Askanius 2012, p. 61). In the end, the individual, group, organization, company or nation with the most resources will, no matter the medium, have most access to channels for setting the agenda and spreading their message, thus having the most potential for dispersing propaganda.

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Media and the history of political rhetoric

The representation of power

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Creating an image and representation is not something new to our time. Queen Christina knew what she was doing while posing for this painting in the 17th century, a pose we can recognize from most royals of our history, as well as in looking at the present crown princess Victoria of Sweden.

According to the SOM-institute in Gothenburg working with societal polls, the level of trust in the monarchy in Sweden is fairly high, but it is declining and is at its lowest point ever. However, there is one exception: the crown princess is the public person in Sweden with the highest level of confidence with the Swedish people, and has the highest ratings ever for an public person (SOM, 2012).

Looking at the history, there have been many scandals surrounding the king and his lifestyle, making him a public mockery almost. But there has always been a counter-image to the king, which is Victoria, the image of the crown princess being calm and wise, never saying or doing anything wrong. Hardly ever a bad word written about her in the press. Considering Sweden has a free press system, this might seem odd she is not questioned since she has such trust with the people, but we can understand this better if we look at her younger years, where it became obvious with images of a scarcely thin young girl that she had gotten anorexia, stated to be due to heavy pressure on her, and the court appealed to the press, as well as the media itself decided to hold off on criticism of her. Probably therefor she is often portrayed in a positive way, compared to her father, but even to her mother and younger brother and sister.

The polls speak for themselves, her ”pr-campaign” has been utterly successful. Most people wouldn’t think of questioning her at all. The image of her is coherent, but more based on the photographs of her than what she has said or done.

She is often in various forms of media; tv, printed press, internet during representation but also releases official images of her family life with husband and young child. She regularly travels around the country for representations but also abroad. She’s linked to different voluntary work and on occasion she holds speeches where she for example refers to herself as Pippi Longstocking, but these are not very often shown in the media. Her primary audience is the Swedish people in wanting them to stay positive to the monarchy, to be proud and feel it is a part of our heritage, but also an international audience in promoting the Swedish industry and culture, since this is a part of her assignment as a royal without official political power.

Victoria is always on a first name basis, both in official media and unofficial, showing she is one of the people, we are close to her, and this works well with the Swedish culture and language which is not very hierarchical. Swedes use the second person in addressing in conversation, not the third more polite way to address as can be seen in German and the Latin languages.

In the media, she used to be shown more in traditional Swedish national costume, but today she is more shown in more contemporary power clothes, such as the business suit or evening gowns, or in a nurturing position as a mother or aid worker. Perhaps showing she is more grown up, ready to take over the throne, and looking like the normal person in power. Also a common image of her today is one with her husband and child. Burke says: even undemocratic leaders claim to have gotten their power of the people today. The illusion of closeness to the people is necessary and an emphasis on dynamic, youth and vitality (Burke, 1992) we see this in her usually smiling, forming a family of her own, looking powerful in her clothing.

While her representation in the press might seem coherent, there is an inherent contradiction to being one of the people as well as royal. In some of her official photographs we can find that historic play on the same graceful royal pose as Queen Christina, one shoulder slightly forward the other, sitting, with the light hitting from one side and the cleavage going down the shoulders but covering the arms (Kungahuset, 2013). This is to show, she is still after all a royal, still not really one of us, and play on the lure of the myth, the exoticism of an old tradition in the modern world. We can buy a lot of things in today’s society, but this is actually something we can never get or really come close, which of course is fascinating.

Had Victoria been like her father, surrounded by scandalous lifestyle, or like her sister with her party-image, it is unlikely she would have been as popular with the Swedish people, and the monarchy might have been more threatened in Sweden than it is today. It is hard not to have a cynical approach in that her popularity is unbelievable positive, but possibly it is also a result in the outcome of her eating disorder which was for sure not staged and an honest consequence of the pressure she felt as an individual.

It should be slightly eye opening reflecting on power around us and how it is represented, present and in history!

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