Organizations are intergroup in nature in that they are collections of people working together to achieve a common set of objectives. These objectives are typically around the creation of innovative products and services that meet the needs of customers, and organizations are always searching for new ways to deliver products and services that offer better quality, more innovation, and higher value than do their competitors. Communication within and across the organization is the central means by which individual and group activities in organizations are coordinated to devise, disseminate and pursue such objectives.
Organizational communication involves the sharing of ideas, knowledge, feelings, and perceptions between employees from different parts of the business. It is even argued that organizations do not exist independently of their employees, but rather they are created and recreated each day by the acts of communication by their members (Jones et al. 2004). Given these key roles of communication, the leaders and managers of organizations are highly focused upon reducing any barriers to effective communication both within the organization and with other companies and their customers. Assisting managers are the efforts of organization and communication researchers who are examining the ways in which organizational structures and their internal environments influence communication.
The Intergroup Nature Of Organizations
The intergroup nature of organizational life is reflected especially in their structures and cultures. These structures and cultures facilitate but also hinder effective organizational communication. The major challenge for managers is to devise communication strategies and channels that work best in these different structures and cultures so that employees and work teams can achieve corporate goals. Their further challenge is that the process of communication is itself inherently constrained, inefficient, and flawed (Coupland et al. 1991). The most common organizational structures are the organization of employees into work groups according to their specializations (e.g., in hospitals, such specializations include nurses, doctors, allied health professionals), around departments that bring the various specializations together to deliver various services (e.g., outpatients, surgery, emergency); these departments are often organized as larger collectives known as divisions (e.g., Divisions of Medicine, Surgery, Mental Health, and Clinical Support Services). To produce the integrated services and products that customers increasingly demand, modern organizations use a wide range of formal and informal mechanisms to create horizontal and vertical flows of communication between individuals, teams, departments, and larger divisions.
The other intergroup feature of organizational life is that each work group, department or division has its own organizational culture that influences how employees perceive the communication from their managers, supervisors, suppliers, and customers. According to Schein (1990), an organizational culture is a system of shared beliefs and values that develops within an organization or within its sub-units, which influences the behavior and performance of its members. Organizational cultures can be strong socializers of employee behavior, and in turn, employees identify with the cultural roles and rules that influence a wide range of behaviors, including the timing, methods, and styles of communication from superiors, co-workers, and customers.
Studies of higher performing organizations (Gulati & Kletter 2005; Pfeffer & Veiga 1999) reveal that they are more adept at creating structures and associated organizational cultures that motivate employees to communicate and to work in more efficient and cooperative ways than the employees of their competitors. High-performing organizations recognize the intergroup nature of organizational life and facilitate communication through policies, structures, and communication technologies that encourage employees to work across boundaries. According to Pfeffer (2005), such organizations use self-managed teams and decentralization as basic elements of organizational design. In addition, in order to make all employees feel important and committed, they attempt to reduce the status differences that separate individuals and groups. Communication is enhanced by making opportunities for employees from different parts of the organization and of different status to interact and to meet in less formal settings. Importantly, there are a number of theoretical concepts that can assist organizations in designing communication strategies and policies that operate across this variety of organizational categories and memberships.
To describe how communication is influenced by the intergroup nature of organizations, communication and organizational researchers have developed a range of concepts that highlight what needs to be identified, and what needs to be managed if organizations are to achieve their stated financial and other objectives. A key concept is social identity, the part of the individual concept which derives from our membership of social groups such as families, communities, clubs, and organizations (Tajfel & Turner 1986). Social identity is a fundamental psychological variable that shapes individuals’ attitudes and behaviors. In the workplace, employees can hold multiple identifications with social groups that include being members of teams, departments, and the organization.
The targets of this identification for most organizational members are the individual (e.g., personal interest), one’s occupation, the work group, and the organization. Based on categorization principles, when people define or categorize themselves as a member of a self-inclusive group (e.g., a work team), distinctions between the ingroup and outgroup members are accentuated, and differences among ingroup members are minimized. In particular, as a consequence of the motivation to enhance their self-esteem, employees aspire to belong to groups at work that are judged to be better in terms of valued attributes like status or their role in the organization (Amiot et al. 2006; Hogg & Terry 2001). This motivation to enhance the reputation of one’s ingroup can result in employees favoring the attributes, behaviors, and activities of their ingroup over outgroups. At worst, such strong memberships and ingroup bias can completely disrupt and distort communicative relationships.
Significantly, these theoretical concepts around social identity and intergroup processes help us to understand the problematic nature of communication in organizations, and the role of employee identities in explaining why different meanings are attached to the same communication from a manager or supervisor. A number of broad integrative models and studies (Scott et al. 1998; Hogg & Terry 2001; Jimmieson et al. 2004) show that levels and targets of employee identification are linked to employee perceptions of organizational communication, perceptions of threat to them and their groups, their choice of coping strategies, and outcomes such as employee well-being, job satisfaction, and commitment. In particular, the application of social identity concepts to communication at work reveals that employees judge the effectiveness and quality of communication during times of organizational change differently depending upon the groups they identify with, and their perceptions of the negative impacts of change upon the status and well-being of their group memberships. In turn, these perceptions of threat and communication influence employees’ choice of coping strategies, and also impact upon their levels of job satisfaction and intentions to stay in their jobs.
Despite such evidence, according to Jones et al. (2004), research into organizational processes from an intergroup perspective is still modest. Conceptually, the research area still lacks a theory of intergroup communication that underpins the field, and the field of intergroup communication in organizational settings relies heavily at present upon the use of aspects of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner 1986). However, this theory is concerned with intergroup relations and not intergroup communication per se. One result is an imbalance in favor of interpersonal and intragroup studies over investigations of intergroup communication.
In terms of the methods used to investigate the intergroup nature of organizational communication, the vast majority of studies use surveys completed by lowerto middlelevel employees. These self-administered questionnaires using multi-item rating scales ask employees to report upon their perceptions of the organization, their identification with various groups and aspects of the organizational culture, and their levels of job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intentions. Criticisms of this field also point to the need for more longitudinal studies, as well as a greater use of multiple methods to collect employee opinions, including the application of interviews, observational studies, discourse analysis, and action research methods to investigate the opinions of more diverse groups of employees than at present. In particular, more interpretative and empirical work is needed into the examination of communicative expressions of identification, and the social processes in organizations through which employees build and manage multiple and shifting identities, especially in response to structural and cultural change to organizations.
Implications For Communication Practices In The Workplace
There are a number of key messages for managers and supervisors in how to design the nature of their communication to their employees. Employees’ levels of identification with various groups like their teams and professions, or with the organization itself, do influence their perceptions of organizational communication, and outcomes for employees such as their levels of job satisfaction and their intentions to stay or leave. Identification with groups at work is related to employees’ attitudes toward communication, organizational change, the likelihood of intergroup conflict, and the psychological well-being of employees. Well-designed organization-wide communication strategies that use a broad range of communication channels are more likely to reinforce employees’ feelings of organizational identification, increasing their commitment to the organization and their intentions to stay (Jablin 1987).
In addition, feelings of workplace uncertainty today that are often associated with continuous change are reduced by providing employees with timely and accurate information concerning the likely impact of changes to them as well as to their groups, either through formal or informal communication channels. Employees who receive higher levels of change-related information report higher levels of psychological well-being, client engagement, and job satisfaction (Jimmieson et al. 2004). This provision of communication is especially important to lower-status groups of employees, who feel more threatened by any announcement of change and who show more heightened sensitivity to conditions that alter the status relationships in their workplaces (Terry et al. 2001).
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