the org: a response to Henry Farrell

Another guest post by Tim Sullivan, co-author of The Org

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has written a thoughtful review of The Org. Henry says nice things about the book (thank you!), and then he gets at two issues:

  1. The tension between Taylorist incentives and Barnardian diffuse trust
  2. How organizations embody the conflicting interests of powerful actors, and how that conflict upends efficiency

Henry also points out that one interpretation of the American Airlines story we briefly tell in the introduction – of an AA UX employee who gets fired for going ever-so-slightly public about design problems with the website – is that the employee’s bosses were “self-aggrandizing assholes.”

To that I can say, with assurance, quite possibly.

It’s just as likely – more so, perhaps – that there’s a policy at American Airlines, as there is at many companies, that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Company or Its Products in Public. And Mr. X violated that policy pretty publicly. It’s probably the HR department that did the firing, and these days HR at any sizeable organization is all about compliance rather than about talent management.

The point of the AA story, though, was not that organizations are perfectly efficient but that organizations face tradeoffs, and it can be useful to acknowledge those tradeoffs explicitly and to understand the economic architecture of organizations because it makes the situation of the average employee, manager, executive more comprehensible. In the AA case, they had a terrible website (which reflected plenty of other dysfunction within the company), and yet to do the job that AA aspired to (that is, flying people and stuff all over the world), you have to build a big, complicated organization that does lots of things all at once – managing fuel contracts, negotiating with pilots and flight attendants, setting prices, and so on. And organizing all of this involves a lot of tradeoffs.

That’s where politics comes in. Henry suggests that

[T]here’s a third account of organizations out there, which Fisman and Sullivan don’t really look at at all. This is accounts of organizations not as human institutions geared to produce efficient outcomes, but instead the by-product of struggles between self-interested actors.

Ray and I aren’t suggesting that orgs can’t be full of politics, power plays, bad managers, ridiculous HR departments, and so forth. They clearly are — but you have to accept these realities when you decide that there’s something that you want to do that will be best accomplished as a group of bosses and employees. The trick is not to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, but to understand how and why they are produced, to recognize that sometimes apparent inefficiencies are the result of being organized, and understand the difference between tradeoffs and the truly ridiculous and pointless aspects of organizational life.

So we’re not aiming to be optimists but rather cynics.

Consider the Baltimore City Police Department, a great illustration of how an org has trouble aligning the actual job of policing with the measurement and management of the job. (You can read an excerpt from that chapter at Slate.) The point of the chapter is that police departments, like many orgs, want to measure the productivity of their employees. But how do you measure crimes that don’t take place, which is the essence of some kinds of good policing (clearing a stoop, taking care of a tense situation)? Most of the time, you don’t – departments tend to focus on the things they can measure like arrests or 911 calls cleared. This, naturally enough, frustrates police officers, who balk at such systems.

We suggest at the end of that chapter that you might think that this would suggest a “theory of necessary employee disillusionment,” where the employees who have the most intrinsic motivation to get the job done are also the most frustrated. Instead, really, what we’re arguing is that all parties would be better off if they could recognize the flaws of the system, why it might be necessary to the organization, and how to work around and through it.

After all, even organizations with very devoted employees have ways to measure production and provide incentives. The Methodists of Oklahoma (whom we focus on in chapter 3), despite having priests who are clearly dedicated to the mission of the church, still have had to come up with an incentive scheme to balance local and statewide concerns (balancing the desire to convert new members with the need to keep parishioners content).

I think our view of the organization is more in line with Melville’s take on life:

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

This from the man who wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

But before you succumb to the idea that your organizational life is a vast practical joke, though, it’s worth understanding the regime of tradeoffs, why they exist, and how they can be managed.


Written by orgtheoryguest

April 11, 2013 at 2:56 am

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. I should note too that if you do happen across an organization that’s been designed around dysfunctional personalities and relationships, you should run away.


    Tim Sullivan

    April 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm

  2. I teach an MBA class about power and politics in organizations, and these issues come up all the time. My view lies somewhere between Henry’s and Tim’s and Ray’s. Rather than seeing politics and power plays as mere inefficiencies – messy and dysfunctional aspects of organizations that we should just try to avoid – I try to convince students that the only way to get anything done in an organization and to be an effective leader is to embrace power dynamics and to be savvy about dealing with organizational politics. Of course, the point of your political strategy shouldn’t just be to get a career advantage over your peers. You should be actively striving to make the organization better and create value. But the point remains that if you simply try to avoid politics, you’re likely to be ineffective. Politics aren’t pointless, they’re the stuff of which organizations are made (structure, roles, etc. just create the constraints in which politics operate and they’re often the targets of politics as well).


    brayden king

    April 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm

  3. Brayden — isn’t that the ‘social skill’ hypothesis that Fabio and others have occasionally written about?



    April 12, 2013 at 9:47 am

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