Rationality in Administrative Behavior: Alternatives and consequences

The objections that have been raised to the means-end schema are (a) that it obscures the comparative element in decision-making, (b) that it does not achieve a successful separation of the factual elements in decision from the value elements, and (c) that it gives insufficient recognition to the time variable in purposive behavior. A theory of decisions in terms of alternative behavior possibilities and their consequences meets

1. Behavior Alternatives

At each moment the behaving subject, or the organization composed of numbers of such individuals, is confronted with a large number of alternative behaviors, some of which are present in consciousness and some of which are not. Decision, or choice, as the term is used here, is the process by which one of these alternatives for each moment’s behavior is selected to be carried out. The series of such decisions which determines behavior over some stretch of time may be called a strategy.

If any one of the possible strategies is chosen and followed out, certain consequences will result. The task of rational decision is to select that one of the strategies which is followed by the preferred set of consequences. It should be emphasized that all the consequences that follow from the chosen strategy are relevant to the evaluation of its correctness, not simply those consequences that were anticipated.

The task of decision involves three steps: (1) the listing of all the alternative strategies; (2) the determination of all the consequences that follow upon each of these strategies; (3) the comparative evaluation of these sets of consequences. The word “all” is used advisedly. It is obviously impossible for the individual to know all his alternatives or all their consequences, and this impossibility is a very important departure of actual behavior from the model of objective rationality. As such, it will receive extended consideration in Chapter V.

2. Time and Behavior

There is nothing which prevents the subject, or the organization, having chosen one strategy on Monday, from selecting a different one on Tuesday. But the Monday decision, in so far as it has been partly acted out before its reconsideration, has already narrowed down the strategies available on Tuesday. This has been pointed out above in the illustration of the shoe factory. Hence, the individual or organization can be committed to a particular line of action from the fact that, having once initiated it, it appears preferable to continue with it rather than to relinquish completely the portion which has already been carried out.

This time-binding character of strategies deserves the greatest emphasis, for it makes possible at least a modicum of rationality in behavior, where, without it, this would be inconceivable. For example, an individual who has spent seven years of his life preparing to be a physician and ten more practicing that profession does not ordinarily have to spend any more time deciding whether he should be a physician or not. Alternative occupations are practically closed to him by virtue of the investment he has already made in the strategy pursued thus far.

Similarly, an organization that is manufacturing shoes does not need to reconsider every day (although it may need to reconsider at intervals) whether it should be in the automobile business instead. This narrows appreciably the alternatives that must be considered by the individual at each moment, and is certainly a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition of rationality.

3. Knowledge and Behavior

The function of knowledge in the decision-making process is to determine which consequences follow upon which of the alternative strategies. It is the task of knowledge to select from the whole class of possible consequences a more limited subclass, or even (ideally) a single set of consequences correlated with each strategy. The behaving subject cannot, of course, know directly the consequences that will follow upon his behavior. If he could, a sort of reverse causality would be operating here—future consequences would be determinants of present behavior. What he does is to form expectations of future consequences, these expectations being based upon known empirical relationships, and upon information about the existing situation.

This may be illustrated in the case of a typical administrative decision process—the selection of personnel. Data are gathered about each of the candidates for a position, from examinations, service ratings, and other sources. These data are used as a basis for comparative prediction to determine which of the candidates will perform most satisfactorily on the job. If the predictions are accurate, then a correct decision can be made.

It has already been remarked that the subject, in order to perform with perfect rationality in this scheme, would have to have a complete description of the consequences following from each alternative strategy and would have to compare these consequences. He would have to know in every single respect how the world would be changed by his behaving one way instead of another, and he would have to follow the consequences of behavior through unlimited stretches of time, unlimited

Fortunately, the problem of choice is usually greatly simplified by the ten- dency of the empirical laws that describe the regularities of nature to arrange themselves in relatively isolated subsets. Two behavior alternatives, when compared, are often found to have consequences that differ in only a few respects and for the rest are identical. That is, the differential consequences of one behavior as against an alternative behavior may occur only within a brief span of time and within a limited area of description. If it were too often true that for want of a nail the kingdom was lost, the consequence chains encountered in practical life would be of such complexity that rational behavior would become virtually impossible.

In one respect the decision problem in private organizations is much simpler than in public agencies. The private organization is expected to take into consideration only those consequences of the decision which affect it, while the public agency must weigh the decision in terms of some comprehensive system of public or community values. For example, when the president of a private corporation decides to give his son a position in the firm, he has to take into consideration the effect the appointment will have upon the efficiency of the enterprise; but a man in the same relative position in the public service has to be concerned equally about the effect of this step upon “equality of opportunity in the public service.” This distinction between private and public management is hardly one of black and white, for an increasing number of private businesses are becoming “affected with a public interest,” and an increasing number of private executives are concerning themselves with their responsibilities of trusteeship toward the community, even beyond the limits that the law imposes on them.

The fact that consequences usually form “isolated” systems provides both scientist and practitioner with a powerful aid to rationality, for the scientist can isolate these closed systems in his experimental laboratory, and study their behavior, while the practitioner may use the laws discovered by the scientist to vary certain environmental conditions without significantly disturbing the remainder of the situation.

There still remain two important distinctions between a problem of scientific discovery and a problem of decision. First of all, it is a valid sci- entific problem to deduce the empirical laws that would hold under certain simplified hypothetical conditions, even though these conditions do not prevail in practice—the theoretical scientist can talk about “rigid bodies,” “perfect vacuums,” “frictionless fluids,” etc. But the practitioner must allow for the effects of elasticity, air pressure, or friction, if they are present and substantial, no matter how much this complicates his problem of selecting the connect

cemed with, and ignore the others. It is a valid scientific problem to ask: “What effect upon the total weight of this airplane will specified changes in design have?” The problem of practical decision, however, is to balance a possible weight-saving against an increase in cost, or a loss of maneuverability, or other qualities. The practitioner can never choose to disregard conditioning facts or consequences simply because they fall outside the scope of his theory.

4. Group Behavior

Further complications are introduced into the picture if more than one individual is involved, for in this case the decisions of the other individuals will be included among the conditions which each individual must consider in reaching his decisions. That is, each individual, in order to determine uniquely the consequences of his actions, must know what will be the actions of the others. This is a factor of fundamental importance for the whole process of administrative decision-making.

There is really a serious circularity involved here. Before A can rationally choose his strategy, he must know which strategy B has chosen; and before B can choose his strategy, he must know A’s. This may be illustrated by the game of matching pennies. There are two participants. The first, out of the sight of his opponent, places a coin with either head or tail uppermost upon a table, and covers it with his hand; the second tries to guess whether head or tail is up. The first participant must decide which choice he thinks the second will make, and then must place the coin in the opposite fashion; the second participant must decide which estimate the first has made of the situation. Both of them cannot be right for, if the first estimates correctly the second’s choice, then the second will have incorrectly estimated the choice of the first, and vice versa. The resulting behavior system will be of a highly indeterminate nature, for the instability of each of the behavior choices leads to the instability of the other.

While the illustration may appear trivial, a little reflection will convince the reader that this game is a model for any purely competitive activity involving two participants—military strategy being perhaps the most important practical example.5

At the opposite extreme from a purely competitive situation is one where two or more participants share a common goal, and where each has sufficient information as to what the others are going to do to enable him to make correct decisions. This is precisely what is meant by “team-work.” The purpose of signals in football, or bidding in bridge, is to enable each player in a team to fotm accurate expectations as to what his teammates are going to do, so that he can determine the proper means for cooperating with them to reach the common aim. A major purpose of the planning and organizing that precedes any administrative activity is not merely to put each participant in the job he can best fill, but to permit each to form accurate expectations as to what the others are going to do. Perhaps it would clarify discussion of administrative theory to use the term “cooperation” for activity in which the participants share a common goal, and “coordination” for the process of informing each as to the planned behaviors of the others. Hence, cooperation will usually be ineffective—will not reach its goal, whatever the intentions of the participants—in the absence of coordination.

If the activity is competitive, then, it may exhibit a certain instability, for each individual will readjust his behavior if he “finds out” the intentions of his opponent, or even as a defensive tactic to prevent the opponent from finding out his own. But this same instability may result even if the activity is cooperative, provided the participants are insufficiently informed. In an organization, for example, where responsibilities have not been allocated with sufficient definiteness, two executives may write conflicting letters to the same person on the same matter, while in another case a letter may remain unwritten because each expects the other to do it.

To state the matter formally, in a cooperative pattern both participants prefer the same set of consequences; hence, if each anticipates the other correctly, they will both act so as to secure these consequences. In a competitive pattern, the optimum outcome for the first participant is not the optimum for the second. Hence the realization by the first participant of the consequences he prefers will frustrate the other participant-—e.g., the rule of the market is to buy cheap and sell dear, but if the buyer buys cheap the seller will not have sold dear. Even a cooperative pattern may be unstable if each participant is unable to predict what the other is going to do. In these cases, coordination of the behaviors of the two participants is necessary in order that they may realize the possibility that they both prefer. Here conflict of aims is not in question, but imperfect knowledge.

Administrative organizations are systems of cooperative behavior.6 The members of the organization are expected to orient their behavior with respect to certain goals that are taken as “organization objectives.” This leaves the problem of coordinating their behavior—of providing each one with knowledge of the behaviors of the others upon which he can base his own decisions. In cooperative systems, even though all par- ticipants are agreed on the objectives to be attained, they cannot ordinarily be left to themselves in selecting the strategies that will lead to these objectives; for the selection of a correct strategy involves a knowledge of each as to the strategies selected by the others.

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

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