Changing the Groupthink
In order to analyze the problems of the groupthink that we have encountered in our organization, we decided to refer to well-known theorists and modules. According to Weick (1995), an important aspect of sensemaking is the individual actor's need for affirmation, that a person will be influenced in a 'reading' of events by what light this shines on his or her sense of being. In simple terms we can say that people see what they want to see. As Weick (1995) argues, this is not as facile as it seems. It is an everyday aspect of the process of making sense that needs to be defined to understand the problems of organizational change.
Weick's discussion of sensemaking and identity construction bridges (modernist) theories of cognitive psychology, with references to real psychological 'needs', and post-modernist accounts of subjectivity, with references to discursive practices. Weick grounds his approach in a process account of identity construction that relies on three main areas of 'need'. Drawing on the work of Erez and Earley, Weick contends that a 'person's changing sense of self' is rooted in (a) the need for self-enhancement, (b) the self-efficacy motive to perceive oneself as competent and efficacious, and (c) the need for self-consistency.
We may note here that Weick acknowledges the existence of a somewhat established self, i.e., something that serves as a reference point for 'self-consistency'. Nonetheless, his main focus is on a 'changing sense of self' which references the postmodernist notion that a person's sense of self, or subjectivity, develops and thus changes through involvement in discursive practices.
Here Weick (quotes Knorr-Cetina's notion of the individual as 'a typified discursive construction', and Mead's contention that an individual is 'a parliament of selves'. Putting this in an organizational context, Weick is interested in the influence of the process of identity construction on decision-making.
This is interesting for the management of change in that individual sensemakers have the potential to arrive at very different senses of a situation and to develop, support or reject decisions based on their own identity needs. It provides an important clue to organizational conflict and resistance to change, but also to the potential for the development of inter-subjective meaning, i.e., where 'individual thoughts, feelings, and interactions are merged or synthesized into conversations during which the self gets transformed from "I" into "we"' (Weick, 1995, p. 71).
But what does this tell us about meaning and the management of organizational change? On the surface it suggests that an organization may be in trouble when different senses of a situation come into conflict. For example, where managers see differentiated training (i.e., one-day versus four-day training sessions) as a legitimate way to achieve value change, while employees view it as a new form of inequity. The result is a breakdown in the change process. On the other hand, there is a strong argument within the management literature to suggest that an absence of conflicting notions can, as in the phenomenon of 'groupthink' (Janis, 1971) for example, also be problematic for organizational decision-making.
This suggests that the real problem may lie with making sensemakers conscious of the process of sensemaking rather than the direction the sensemaking takes.
For example, had the consulting firm encouraged managers to be aware of their own sensemaking and the sensemaking of others they may have been able to predict - and thus avoid - conflict over training. Some employees may have continued to feel that culture change was a new form of management manipulation but the absence of certain cues (e.g., differentiated training schedules) may have undermined the emotional content of resistance.
Weick's (1995) discussion of identity construction also suggests that the 'successful' transformation of an organization's culture may depend upon the extent to which each individual's sense of self can be positively experienced through a sense of organization. In terms of organizational change this is open to different interpretations. There are those who may interpret this to mean that unified organizational cultures depend on shared values and beliefs (Schein, 1985).
Taking all of the above into consideration, I would argue, the significance of identity construction for organizational change depends on the ability of the actors involved to achieve a shared sense of experience that, at the very least, does not threaten the individuals' sense of self. To return to the example of differentiated training, the provision of training sessions that were uniform in duration may not have led to a unified belief in the new culture programme but could have provided the cues for a sense of shared experience and a related sense of training equity.
Another area where the property of identity construction may help to identify potential problems in the management of change revolves around the adoption and assessment of change programmes.
The objectification of the change process may discourage self-awareness and discussion of selfinterest.
Janis, I. L. (1971) Groupthink: The Desperate Drive for Consensus at Any Cost. Psychology Today, 12, 43-76.
Schein, E. H. (1985) Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Weick, K. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. London: Sage
Decision Making Process Analysis
Those of us involved in the development and administration of the groupthink change program informed the senior management team that the gap between employees and managers was, in large part, due to the large numbers of former employees who held management positions. Often managers had not had any formal leadership training and had been promoted based on technical rather than people skills. The managers' leadership style was seen as too rigid and autocratic, allowing employees little input or discretion in doing their jobs.
Problems between management and employees were not the only source of division. It was also noted that there was a considerable gap between various divisions to the extent that they had the feel of two different and separate companies. In short, we were confronted with a serious problem that needed resolve. From his perspective the problem was rooted in inadequate communication between head office and the rest of the organization, and poor communication skill between managers and employees.
What we needed was a way to overcome those problems, to deal with low morale and to unite the two divisions into a single company. We did not have to look far for a solution. Culture change was by now not only a popular method of dealing with a variety of organizational problems but was a growing part of the lexicon of managing within our company. As we looked for answers to this problem we could not have failed to notice that, throughout the industry, other utilities had implemented or were in the process of implementing culture change, as were a number of other large companies in our district.
In the early part of this year, only a few months after the announcement of the negative groupthink results, we took the first step towards enacting a new sense of organization throughout the company; we opted for culture change. The next step was in deciding what form the culture change would take. In that regard we were influenced by the belief that our managers needed to be retrained in leadership skills and that employees needed some sense of involvement in the company. It is a view that, we believe, should become enshrined in the company's 'vision for the year 2006, which envisions: 'Participative management…with employees being fully involved as team members in problem solving and decision-making within an organizational structure that operates with few levels of management'.
Looking back on the process, we state: 'We believe in people. In the sense that we achieve our goals through people and people only produce those results when they feel good about their work'. It was this approach that shaped the choice of our group to develop a program of culture change for the whole organization.