Hey Who’s in Charge Around Here? Research Time, 13/04/2015

My communications program’s instructors will sometimes talk about the importance of a company’s CEO not only in representing the company to the wider public, but in actually managing it. It’s a pretty intuitive idea, that the boss would manage the company. But sociological research into organizations since the 1930s has revealed that the boss, despite being the boss, doesn’t always know what’s going on at his own company.

What makes technology CEOs and the actors who play
them in movies such good bosses is the open,
collaborative work environment through which their
firms operate.
Network theory has become the main analytic tool in understanding how organizations actually work on a daily basis. That early research into organizations discovered that the standard hierarchy of a company (chiefs at the top, then executives, division heads, managers, team leads, workers, and support staff) didn’t tell the whole story of how people communicate in organizations and who was responsible for what. The official hierarchies still determined how much people were each paid, though.

If a company’s organizational hierarchy is its formal network, then its informal networks are the relationships and communications links that actually get the work done. Network analysis describes how each informal network grows, specifically to the case.

Charles Kadushin’s book has some really clear explanations of how these work. Formally, each worker in a hierarchy reports to the next person up the organization’s formal pyramid. A team lead reports to a manager, who reports on all his teams’ activities to a division head, who reports the summarized activities of his division to the executives and company chiefs. The CEO and associates then make leadership decisions for the company based on the collected information from all the divisions.

Real organizations have so much more going on than this, and the sociological sub-discipline of organization theory which informs Kadushin’s chapter where this example comes from produced the empirical studies that showed it. Members of multiple teams within and across divisions talk to each other at all levels of the corporate hierarchy. 

They discuss how their division runs and the details of different projects. They figure out how their projects are related and collaborate. All of this may go on without any of this knowledge sharing ever ending up in an official report or otherwise travelling to a nominal superior. Workers act autonomously simply because the orders of their nominal superiors can’t account for the collaborative activity of which they never learn.

And if those superiors ever do learn of such knowledge, and disapprove of it, they quite likely won’t be able to stop it. Another empirical discovery of the organization sociologists over the last century or so was that the authority of the boss to direct the activity of the workers doesn’t rest with the boss himself.

A BBC Capital article named Dov Charney of American
Apparel one of the world's worst CEOs of 2014 for a
long and horrible narrative of immoral and abusive
behaviour in his own company.
It sounds self-contradictory, doesn’t it. The boss gives orders and employees follow them. That’s why he’s the boss. But workers can and do rebel against a CEO’s authority. We see it all the time. A chief executive might be so authoritarian as to forbid collaboration, or so insecure as to attempt to micromanage different divisions. He might treat employees with contempt. And workers will disregard the orders of such a person, put up with him when he's in sight, and return to business as usual when he's gone.

In fairness, such executives are all rather bad at their jobs. One of the hallmarks of a good CEO is that she maintains the trust of employees at all levels. What is necessary to maintain that trust will vary depending on the culture of the workplace. 

Accustomed as we are today to the flat hierarchies of the internet, I’d venture that such trust rests in fostering a collaborative work environment where employees are empowered to speak frankly about their company’s conduct and projects, and where it’s clear that the higher-ranking executives care about what they say.

Collaboration is at the heart of a sensible, sane workplace. But collaboration can result in unethical or counter-productive practices too. Kadushin talks about insider trading as an example. Brokers working in the same physical or online trading halls getting to know each other and sharing knowledge for mutual productivity. One day, that knowledge sharing reaches a certain threshold and becomes an unfair advantage, a corruption.

Michelle Bachelet is a hero of modern democracy, but
is also mired in allegations of familial political corruption.
Corruption occurs anywhere. I was reading this morning about the son of Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile. Bachelet is a heroic figure in Chile, a woman who was tortured in prison under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but who became the president after re-democratization. But her son is being prosecuted for using his family’s political connections to acquire a $10-million property and flip it within months for an enormous profit. It didn’t help his or President Bachelet’s case for innocence that he’s also in his mother’s government. 

So I wonder, given the importance of unofficial social networking for the health of companies and the wealth of individuals in the system, how does collaboration for mutual profit become intolerable corruption?

We’re taught at every stage of our life to use our social connections to get what we want. Some of my student colleagues in the communications program are choosing to focus their search for internships and jobs on what they can find through their own networks. And that’s fine. It isn’t an advantage I can take part in because I don’t really have that many personal connections in Toronto anymore.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want to use them anyway. It’s nice if you can get them, but I prefer to put forward the best case for myself that I possibly can in a field and see if I can win a position with a firm on merit. That’s how I got my internship. If I were to use a personal connection to skip past an application process, I’d always feel illegitimate in a position, as if questions would always follow me of whether I deserved to be there.

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