The Design and Management of Externally Controlled Organizations: Three Managerial Roles

In the first chapter, we indicated what a model of administration might look like using the theoretical perspective developed in this book. We return to the three roles introduced then to see what we have learned about the importance and use of those roles. The three roles of management—symbolic, responsive, and discretionary—differ in the way organizational constraints and actions are related. In the symbolic role, actions are unrelated to constraints. The organizations outcomes are determined primarily by its context and the administrator’s actions have little effect. In the responsive role, organizational actions are developed in response to the demands from the environment. Managers form actions according to the interdependencies they confront, and constraint and action are directly related. In the discretionary role, constraints and environments are managed to suit the interests of the organization. Management’s function is to direct the organization toward more favorable environments and to manage and establish negotiated environments favorable to the organization. All three roles are typically involved in the management of organizations.

1. The Symbolic Role of Management

The manager is a symbol of the organization and its success or failure, a scapegoat, and a symbol of personal or individual control over social actions and outcomes. The symbolic role of management derives in part from a belief in personal causation as opposed to environmental determinism, a belief which is both pervasive and important to concepts of human action (e.g., Kelley, 1971; Lieberson and O’Connor, 1972). As a symbol of control and personal causation, managers and organizational leaders can be used as scapegoats, rewarded when things go well and fired when they go poorly. The knowledge that someone is in charge and that the fate of the organization depends on that person offers the promise of change in organizational activities and fortunes. When problems emerge, the solution is simple and easy—replace the manager. Such changes may not be accomplished readily, as the administrator’s power and ability to control the interpretation of organizational outcomes can maintain tenure in office.

Organizations and social systems go to great lengths to invest managers with symbolic value. Leaders may be provided with special perquisites and designations of authority which serve not only to reward the leader but also to remind others of this person’s importance by focusing their attention on him. When one leader leaves office, the search for the new leader may be elaborate, involving committees, elections, inaugurations, and the expenditure of time and resources. All of these activities tend to cause observers to attribute great consequences to the occupant of the particular administrative position. In this sense, the symbolic role of management is critical whether or not the manager actually accounts for variance in organizational results. The symbol of control and personal causation provides the prospect of stability for the social system. Belief in the importance of leaders would, logically, lead to the replacement of leaders when things went badly. But, while there is some disruption when turnover occurs, the disruption and alteration of organizational activities is clearly less than if the organization were redesigned and undertook new activities in new environments.

Beliefs   in   the   potency   of   individual   administrators,   created   through mythologies, symbols, and activities designed to create such beliefs, may be held by outsiders as well as by those individuals whose activities are structured within the organization. Not privy to information about the constraints on administrators, outsiders may have an even greater tendency to see organizational actions as under the control of one or a few persons. The various external interests will focus on the leader and attempt to influence the organization through him or her.

In creating the symbolic role of the manager, the organization also creates a mechanism for dealing with external demands. When external demands cannot be met because of constraints on the organization, the administrator can be removed. Replacing the leader, who has come to symbolize the organization to the various interest groups, may be sufficient to relieve pressures on the organization. As long as all believe that the administrator actually affects the organization, then replacement signals a change taken in response to external demands. The change communicates an intent to comply, and this intent may be as useful as actual compliance for satisfying external organizations.

Changing administrators offers a way of altering appearances, thereby removing external pressure, without losing much discretion. If the manager has little effect on organizational outcomes, his or her replacement will not change much, particularly if a person with similar views is chosen as the replacement. The manager is, therefore, a convenient target for external influences, and provides the organization with a relatively simple way of responding to external demands.

The argument that one of the manager’s important roles is to serve as a symbol is a functionalist argument. Explication of the functions served (such as providing stability) must await additional research on the process of symbol creation and the actions taken to invest managers with the appearance of control over outcomes and activities. For the present, we can note that the capability of replacing managers who have been invested with symbolic importance affords the organization the possibility of coping with competing demands and constraints.

The belief in personal causation of events is also lodged in our legal system. Organizations are typically not criminally liable, only individual managers are. The electrical generating equipment price fixing case of the early 1960s illustrates well the manager as a symbol. Manufacturing generating equipment was a business with high fixed costs. When demand fell, price wars tended to occur. In an attempt to stabilize their environment, managers from the major manufacturers met and attempted to fix price and allocate markets. Such attempts were often unsuccessful and were at least in part a consequence of the structure of the industry. Managers were acting because of environmental contingencies and, it might be presumed, because of pressures from superiors for higher and more stable operating results. When the conspiracy was uncovered, the colluding managers were prosecuted, fined, occasionally imprisoned, and in almost every instance, fired by the employing organizations. While the firms themselves were liable for treble damage suits, the managers faced ruined careers. More recently, officials in Lockheed and Gulf Oil were removed following disclosures of bribery of foreign political officials. The corporations, by firing their agents, could claim that such illegal actions were not condoned and would not be permitted. More of the onus for the action was shifted to the individuals involved, who were fired and thereby separated from the company.

The symbolic role of management involves the process by which causality for events is attributed to various actors or external factors (e.g., Kelley, 1971) . Studies of processes of attribution, including attention to the role of salient and relevant information, the differences in perceptions between actors and observers (Jones and Nisbett, 1971), and the tendency for persons to attribute control to personal actions (e.g., Langer, 1975) are all relevant for explaining the processes by which beliefs in the causal importance of administrators are created. The symbolic role of management is both important and empirically explainable.

2. The Responsive Role of Management

If managers were only symbols, it would not matter what they did. Such a position obviously underestimates the actual consequences of administrative action. Even though administrators or organizational leaders may not have tremendous effects on actions and outcomes (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1977), they do account for some variance. There are two roles of management that can be identified with this position of managerial impact, the responsive role and the discretionary role. By responsive role we mean that the manager is a processor and responder to the demands and constraints confronting the organization. In this role, the manager assesses the context, determines how to adapt the organization to meet the constraints of the context, and implements the adaptation.

The conceptualization of managers as responders must be carefully distinguished from the view of the all-knowing, all-seeing leader who directs organizational actions unconstrained by the context. To manage the organization s relationships with its environment, the manager in the responsive role must perceive the demands and dependencies confronting the organization, and then adjust the organization accordingly. To say that a leader is responsive to the demands of others is to say that the activities of the leader are structured and shaped by others. The responsive role of management posits the function of management as being an assimilator and processor of demands. Such a view is at variance with the image of great managerial leaders directing the organization, making decisions, and through the sheer force of will transforming organizations to achieve success.

The most appropriate activity of the responsive manager is not developing appropriate actions but deciding which demands to heed and which to reject. The actions to be taken are provided by the various participants and interests in the organization and its environment. There  is no  shortage of suggestions, if not demands, concerning what the organization should be doing. The manager’s function is to decide which of these to follow. The choice is critical for organiza- tional survival, for in responding to demands the organization necessarily gives up discretion. Our prediction is that administrators respond to demands as a function of the interdependence with various elements in the environment—the greater the interdependence with a given other social actor, the more likely the organization is to follow its demands. To maintain support from important suppliers of resources, organizations constrain their actions to comply with the requests of those with resource control. It is clear that such a course requires being aware of the situation of interdependence and the demands of those with whom the organization is interdependent.

Management is frequently described as decision making. This, of course, is correct. But the emphasis in such a view is often misplaced, focusing almost exclusively on choice. Choice, however, is only one step in the decision process. Prior to the exercise of choice, information about the environment and possible consequences of alternative actions must be acquired and processed. Once this is done, the choice is usually obvious. Instead of describing management as decision making, we could describe management as information gathering and be both consistent with the original position and possibly more descriptive of the actual emphasis of managers (e.g., Mintzberg, 1973). Decisions are made in a social context, and this context must inevitably constrain decisions if the decisions are to be effective in that context. The responsive role of management is not inconsistent with the more widely seen view of management as decision making. Rather, this role emphasizes the importance of processing and responding to the organization’s context. The critical factor is that constraints are imposed on the actor.

3. The Discretionary Role of Management

As we have noted before, managers not only adapt their organizations to the context, but may take actions to modify the environment to which the organization then responds. In addition to a responsive role of management, therefore, we can speak of a discretionary role. Managerial action focuses on altering the system of constraints and dependencies confronting the organization. This discretionary role of management is involved when we think of organizations merging, lobbying, coopting, and doing all the various things that alter the interdependencies confronted by the organization.

In some respects, the discretionary role of management is not inconsistent with the responsive role. Both require accurate assessment of environmental constraints and contingencies. Whether one is going to respond to the environment or change it, effective action is more likely if the context is accurately perceived. Both the responsive and discretionary roles of management, then, emphasize the importance of the information processing tasks and the criticality of the accuracy of the manager’s perception, his or her model of reality.

The discretionary role, however, places more emphasis on the possibility for managerial action actually to change the organization’s context. The discretionary role is more fitting to some organizations than others. Only a few have enough resources and scale to attempt to alter their contexts in a significant fashion. For millions of small business organizations, voluntary associations, and nonprofit organizations, such change of the environment is virtually out of the question.

The three roles of management we have described are certainly not mutually exclusive. At some time all may be enacted. At one point, management may serve a symbolic value; while at others, it may respond to environmental demands; while at still others, it may engage in actions to modify the environment. Although each perspective may emphasize a slightly different set of skills and activities, all are potentially important. The critical issues involve under what circumstances one or the other role is likely to predominate and what factors appear to be associated with successfully performing each of the managerial roles.

Specifying these three roles does not mean that they can inevitably be handled to bring success to the organization. If there is one image we wish to provide the reader, it is that success is in the hands of many actors outside the control of the organization. Organizations exist in interdependent environments and require the interlocking of activities to survive. Control over this interlocking or structuring of activities is never in the hands of a single actor such as a manager. Books about how to manage or how to succeed are ill-advised because they give the impression that there is some set of rules or procedures that will guarantee success. The essence of the concept of interdependence means that this cannot be the case. In any interdependent situation, outcomes are at least partially in the control of other social actors, and the successful outcomes achieved through performing various managerial roles derives in part from actions taken by others outside the manager’s control.

Source: Pfeffer Jeffrey, Salancik Gerald (2003), The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective, Stanford Business Books; 1st edition

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