Cognitive bases and mechanisms for identification


The cognitive component of the mechanism of identification discussed in Chapter X can be described thus:

  1. As we saw in Chapter IX, high-level goals often provide little guide for action because it is difficult to measure their attainment and difficult to measure the effects of concrete actions upon them. The broad goals (e.g., “long-term profit,” “public welfare,” and so on) are thus not operative, nor do they provide the common numerator discussed in Chapter IX as essential to efficient choice among alternatives.
  2. Decisions tend to be made, consequently, in ternis of the highest- level goals that are operative—the most general goals to which specific activities can be related in a fairly definite way and those that provide some basis for assessing The operative goals provide the seed around which the decision-maker’s simplified model of the world crystallizes. Decision-makers tend to take into account those matters that are reasonably directly related to these goals and discount or ignore others.
  3. Not only do their subgoals cause decision-makers to attend selectively to their environments, but the administrative structures and communication channels they erect to attain these goals expose them to particular kinds of information and shield them from others. Yet, because of the complexity of the information that does reach them, even this selected information is analyzed only partially and incompletely.

An important result of these conditions, which make perception very selective, is that decision-makers acquire a representation of the situation in which they are working that focuses upon the operative goals and interprets these in terms of the very partial information that is attended to. In this way, decision-makers in an organization unit can identify strongly with a set of goals and a “world view” that may be quite different from those held by members of other units in the same organization.

These phenomena are frequently prominent in the anecdotes of executives and observers of organizations, but little evidence of a systematic kind vouching for their reality has been available. It is the purpose of this section to supply some such evidence.

The proposition we are considering is not peculiarly organizational. It is simply an application to organizational phenomena of a generalization that is central to any explanation of selective perception: Presented with a complex stimulus, a person perceives in it what he or she is “ready” to perceive; the more complex or ambiguous the stimulus, the more the perception is determined by what is already “in” the subject and the less by what is “in” the stimulus.23


Motivational and cognitive mechanisms mingle in the selection process, and it may be of some use to assess their relative contributions. We might suppose either: (1) selective attention to a part of a stimulus reflects a deliberate ignoring of the remainder as irrelevant to the subject’s goals and motives, or (2) selective attention is a learned response stemming from some past history of exposure to particular information. In the latter case we might still be at some pains to determine what kinds of information will be learned. But by creating a situation from which any immediate motivation for selectivity is removed, we should be able to separate the second mechanism from the first. The situation in which we obtained our evidence meets this condition, and hence our data provide evidence for internalization of the selective processes.

The Experiment

A group of twenty-three executives, all employed by a single large manu- facturing concern and enrolled in a company-sponsored executive training program, were asked to read a standard case that is widely used in instruction in business policy in business schools. The case, Castengo Steel Company, described the organization and activities of a company of moderate size specializing in the manufacture of seamless steel tubes, as of the end of World War II. The case, which is about 10,000 words in length, contains a wealth of descriptive material about the company and its industry and the recent history of both (up to 1945), but little evaluation. It is deliberately written to hold closely to concrete facts and to leave as much as possible of the burden of interpretation to the reader.

When the executives appeared at a class session to discuss the case, but before they had discussed it, they were asked by the instructor to write a brief statement of what they considered to be the most important problem facing the Castengo Steel Company—the problem a new company president should deal with first. Prior to this session, the group had discussed other cases, being reminded from time to time by the instmctor that they were to assume the role of the top executive of the company in considering its problems.

The executives were a relatively homogeneous group in terms of status, being drawn from perhaps three levels of the company organization. They were in the range usually called “middle management,” representing such positions as superintendent of a department in a large factory, product manager responsible for profitability of one of the ten product groups manufactured by the company, and works physician for a large factory. In terms of departmental affiliation, they fell in four groups:

Production (5): Three department superintendents, one assistant fac- tory manager, and one construction engineer.

Accounting (4): An assistant chief accountant, and three accounting supervisors—for a budget division and two factory departments.

Miscellaneous (8): Two members of the legal department, two in research anu development, and one each from public relations, industrial relations, medical, and purchasing.

The Data

Since the statements these executives wrote are relatively brief, they are reproduced in full in the appendix to this chapter. We tested our hypothesis by determining whether there was a significant relation between the “most important problem” mentioned and the departmental affiliation of the mentioner. In the cases of executives who cited more than one problem, we counted all those they listed. We compared (1) the executives who mentioned “sales,” “marketing,” or “distribution” with those who did not; (2) the executives who mentioned “clarifying the organization” or some equivalent with those who did not; (3) the executives who mentioned “human relations,” “employee relations,” or “team work” with those who did not. The findings are summarized in Table 1.

The difference between the percentages of sales executives (83 per cent) and other executives (29 per cent) who mentioned sales as the most important problem is significant at the 5 per cent level. Three of the five non-sales executives, moreover, who mentioned sales were in the accounting department, and all of these were in positions that involved analysis of product profitability. This accounting activity was, in fact, receiving considerable emphasis in the company at the time of the case discussion, and the accounting executives had frequent and close contacts with the product managers in the sales department. If we combine sales and accounting executives, we find that eight out of ten of these mentioned sales as the most important problem; while only two of the remaining thirteen executives did.

Organization problems (other than marketing organization) were mentioned by four out of five production executives, the two executives in research and development, and the factory physician, but by only one sales executive and no accounting executives. The difference between the percentage for production executives (80 per cent) and other executives (22 per cent) is also significant at the 5 per cent level. Examination of the Castengo case shows that the main issue discussed in the case that relates to manufacturing is the problem of poorly defined relations among the factory manager, the metallurgist, and the company president. The presence of the metallurgist in the situation may help to explain the sensitivity of the two research and development executives (both of whom were concerned with metallurgy) to this particular problem area.

It is easy to conjecture why the public relations, industrial relations, and medical executives should all have mentioned some aspect of human relations, and why one of the two legal department executives should have mentioned the board of directors.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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