Routine as truce

Our discussion to this point has been concerned with the cognitive aspects of the performances of organization members-with the question of whether they know what to do and how to do it. We have ignored the motivational aspect- the question of whether they would actually choose to do what is “required” of them in the rou­ tine operation of the organization as a whole. Relatedly, the image of coordination that we have presented involves no mention of author­ i ty figures, backed by a system of incentives and sanctions, who ca­ jole or coerce the required performances from other members. It is not, however, part of our intention to ignore the divergence of inter­ ests among organization members, or to assume implicitly that members are somehow fully committed to the smooth functioning of the organization. Here we fill in the part of the picture of routine operation that involves motivational considerations and intraorgani­- zational conflict.

First of all, our concept of routine operation should not be con­ fused with performance according to the nominal standards of the organization. Neither should the proposition that members correctly interpret  and  appropriately  respond  to  messages  they  receive  be taken to imply that members do what they are told. Nominally, the workday in a particular organization may run from 9:00 to 5: 00, but it may be the case (routinely) that very little activity that is productive from the organization’s point of view gets done before 9: 30 or after 4:45. Similarly, days or weeks may pass between the nominal dead­ lines for the completion of particular tasks and the typical dates at which they are actually completed. Repeated follow-up requests or orders may, quite routinely, be part of the system of messages that ultimately results in “timely” performance by other organization members. The priority system used by a particular member in allo­ cating effort among tasks may make use,  routinely, of the informa­ tion contained in the overtones of panic or fury in the incoming messages. In short, routine operation is consistent with routinely oc­ curring laxity,  slippage,  rule- breaking,  defiance,  and  even sabotage.

Such behaviors typically violate nominal standards and expectations in an organization, but they do not necessarily violate empirically based expectations or have consequences for output that are incon­ sistent with results being statistically stable and within the expected range. They may be expected, adapted to, and allowed for- even to the point where a sudden reversion to nominal standards by some organization members would be disruptive of the achieved state of coordination.

Although nominal standards of performance are not necessarily relevant, it is nevertheless true that some sort of stable accommo­ dation between the requirements of organizational functioning and the motivations of all organization members is a necessary concomi­ tant of routine operation. What signals the existence of an accommo­ dation is not the conformity of behavior to standards of performance laid down by supervisors or codified in job descriptions, but that members are rarely surprised at each other’s behavior and also that involuntary separations of members from the organization do not occur.

The usual mechanisms of internal control are, of course, a part of the context that helps defi ne the de facto contracts that individual members make with the organization. Some of the clerks in the retail store might simply ignore the customers if the manager did not check up occasionally-but the manager does, routinely, check up occa­ sionally, an d this keeps the problem within limits. Some fraction of workers may in fact take every opportunity to shirk. This means that the “contracts” of these workers call fo r them to deliver an amount of work that is defined by the level of managerial supervision; a change in that level would mean a change in the de facto contract, but no such change occurs in the context of routine operation. Again, if banks did not have elaborate ro utinized systems of financial control, it is likely that more bank employees would exploit their positions to their own financial advantage, whether by dipping directly into the till or by approving doubtful loans to undertakings in which they have an interest. As it is, the operation of the control system is a major component of the routine tasks of many bank employees: every job is partially defined by the system’s existence and illicit appropriation of bank funds is not (routinely) an important form of compensation.

The  examples j ust given  illustrate  the  way  in  which  control of organization members is effected through mechanisms operating routinely as part of the jobs of other organization members, and serving primarily to threaten sanctions, including dismissal, for behavior that deviates from organizational requirements in specified prohibited directions and in excessive degree. Such rule-enforce­ ment mechanisms play a crucial but limited role in making routine operation possible. On the one hand, they largely prevent or deter individual members from pursuing their own interests along lines that are so strongly antithetical to organizational requirements as to threaten the feasibility of any coordinated performance at all. In this sense, they are crucial in keeping the underlying conflicts among organization members from being expressed in highly disruptive forms.

Ordinarily, however, control systems of this type leave individual members with substantial areas of behavioral discretion, areas that embrace performances of widely differing appropriateness or value from the organizational perspective. Except for tasks involving very low levels of skill, performed under conditions favorable to close ob­ servation of several workers by a single supervisor, it is not practical to monitor and control behavior so closely that only organizationally appropriate behaviors are permitted. Within the substantial zone of discretion that exists in most cases, the conformity of individual member behavior to organizational requirements is motivated by considerations other than the routinized organizational mechanisms that “enforce the rules.” A variety of other motivating considerations exist. In some cases it is possible to measure individual member “output” reasonably well; reward (or freedom from sanction) can then be conditioned on achievement of a satisfactory output level . In others, organizationally appropriate behavior may be as attractive to the individual member as any other behavior in the zone of discre­ tion left by the rule-enforcement system. Or members may regard themselves as being in a long-term exchange relationship with the organization and may expect future rewards for effective behavior in the present. The importance and efficacy of these motivators and of others not mentioned may be expected to vary among tasks, among rule enforcement, output monitoring and promotion systems, and also, importantly, across member cultures and subcultures that in­ culcate differing attitudes toward the responsibilities and rewards of organizational membership.

In routine operation, the combined effect of the rule-enfo rcement mechanism and other motivators is such as to leave members content to play their roles in the organizational routine- but “content” only in the sense that they a re willing to continue to perform up to their usual standard, to the accompaniment of the usual amount of griping and squabbling. Conflict, both manifest and latent, persists, but manifest conflict follows largely predictable paths and stays within predictable bounds that are consistent with the ongoing routine. In short, routine operation involves a comprehensive truce in in­ traorganizational conflict. There is a truce between the supervisor and those supervised at every level in the organizational hierarchy: the usual amount of work gets done, reprimands and compliments are delivered with the usual frequency I and no demands are pre­ sented for maj or modifications in the terms of the relationship. There is similarly a truce in the struggle for advancement, power, and per­ quisites among high-level executives. Nobody is trying to steer the organizational ship into a sharp turn in the hope of throwing a rival overboard- or if someone is trying, he correctly expects to be thwarted.

When one considers routine operation as the basis of organiza­tional memory, one is led to expect to find routines patterned in ways that refl ect characteristics of the information storage problem that they solve. When one considers routine operation as involving a truce in intraorganizational conflict, one is led to expect routines to be patterned in ways that reflect features of the underlying problem of diverging individual member interests. The obvious example of such patterning is the existence of rule-enforcement mechanisms as an ongoing feature of organizational routine, even when serious breaches of the rules are infrequent and most of the sanctions that are nominally available are not applied.

But more subtle manifestations, specific to a particular organiza­ tional context, frequently exist. Like a truce among nations, the truce among organization members tends to give rise to a p eculiar sym­ bolic culture shared by the parties. A renewal of overt hostilities would be costly and would also involve a sharp rise in uncertainty about the future positions of the parties . Accordingly, the state of truce is ordinarily considered valuable, and a breach of its terms is not to be undertaken lightly. But the terms of a truce can n ever be fully explicit, and in the case of the intraorganizational truce are often not explicit at all. The terms become increasingly defined by a share d tradition arising o ut of the specific contingencies confronted and the responses of the parties to those contingencies. In the interpretive context of such a tradition, actions by individual members have con­ notations related to the terms of the truce. In particular, a contem­ plated action otherwise sensible both for the o rganization and for the memb er taking it may have to be rejected if it is lik ely to be inter­ preted as “provocative”-that is, as signaling a lessened commit­ ment to the preservation of the truce and a corresponding willing­ ness to risk overt conflict for the sake of modifying the routine in a manner favored by the member who initiates the change. On the de­ fensive side, each member strives to protect his interests by standing prepared to deliver a firm rebuff not only to actions by others that cle arly threaten those interests, but also to actions that might be quite innocuous were it not for their possible interpretation as probes of his alertness or determination to d efend his rights under the truce.

The apparent fragility of the prevailing truce and the implied need for caution in undertaking anything that looks like a n ew initiative is thus reinforced by the defensive alertness (or alert defensiveness) of organization members seeking to assure that their interests continue to be recognized and preserved. The result may be that the routines of the organization as a whole are confined to extremely narrow channels by the d ikes of vested interest. Adaptations that appear II obvious” and 1/ easy” to an external observer may be foreclosed be­ cause they involve a perceived threat to internal political equilib­ rium.

Of course, organizations vary in the extent to which these mecha-nisms operate, as they do in other respects. But it seems safe to say that fear of breaking the truce is, in general, a powerful force tending to hold organizations on the path of relatively inflexible routine.

Source: Nelson Richard R., Winter Sidney G. (1985), An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

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