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The seven communication
do not change
Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, USA
Purpose – Management attempts to transform organizations seldom succeed. This paper aims to
describe seven common communication behaviors accompanying those failures.
Design/methodology/approach – This paper integrates material from three recent communication
and organizational change studies, recent change theory, and complexity theory to model
communication and change processes. All the studies employed traditional ethnographic methods, but
one study employed quantitative methods as well as part of a mixed methods design.
Findings – Data describe six common communication behaviors during failed organizational change
efforts. The combination of these behaviors suggests a seventh pattern. Communication during failed
efforts seldom involves enough communication opportunities, lacks any sense of emerging
identiﬁcation, engenders distrust, and lacks productive humor. These problems are compounded by
conﬂict avoidance and a lack of interpersonal communication skills. Members decouple the system,
sheltering the existing culture until it is safe for it to reemerge later.
Research limitations/implications – The integration of data from three studies with theory
improves transferability, but more studies would improve the veracity of the results. Only one study
employed quantitative data along with qualitative data. Organizational change research may need to
employ mixed methods and augment results through simulations to understand time-dependent
Practical implications – Results point to the limitations of management and impersonal
communication. Change is a messy business, and transformational change will not happen unless
management is willing to tolerate the ambiguity and the sense that emerges in communication. Results
also point to the importance of communication skills in hiring practices.
Originality/value – Few essays integrate results from several studies. This paper challenges
accepted management practices and extends the growing understanding of the limits of individuals to
control social change; it also adds to the literature on and application of complexity theory.
Keywords Communication, Organizational change, Qualitative methods, Complexity theory
Paper type Research paper
Practitioners and researchers have a continuing interest in communication and change.
Organizational change, like all change, is about differences over time (Salem, 1999).
There are two orders of change (Watzlawick et al., 1974). First order change comes from
simple learning – a continuous incremental process, involving differences in degree as
behaviors become more efﬁcient at producing outcomes (Adler, 1967; Argyris, 1992).
Second order change consists of altering functions or goals, the reasons for having the
behaviors in the ﬁrst place. Second order change is a product of learning that challenges
and alters basic organizational premises (Argyris, 1992) and second order change may
appear to be discontinuous or episodic changes of kind (Adler, 1967). Second order
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received October 2007
Revised January 2008
Accepted January 2008
Corporate Communications: An
Vol. 13 No. 3, 2008
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
change is transformational change (Hernes, 1976), and the literature on organizational
change has focused on accomplishing transformational change. Organizational
transformations involve changes in core features such as goals, authority
relationships and organizational structure, markets, and technologies (Aldrich and
Ruef, 2006; Rao and Singh, 1999).
Management has made efforts to direct discontinuous second order change
strategically (Nadler et al., 1995). These strategic initiatives have been successful only
about one third of the time (Cameron and Quinn, 1999; Meyer et al., 1995). Enduring
improvement appears to be impossible without a change of culture (Cameron and Quinn,
1999, p. 9). Culture is the set of embedded communication practices that distinguishes
one group from another. Accomplishing transformational change involves replacing
current competencies, routines, and rituals with other stable communication practices.
Strategic initiatives whose purpose was to change the organization’s culture have
succeeded less than 20 percent of the time (Smith, 2002). What this data suggest is that
most legitimate systems – the established cultures – are robust and resistant to
strategic initiatives. What management intends as transformational change may be
integrated into the organization as simple adaptations.
The purpose of this paper is to describe common communication patterns during
attempts to direct transformational change. The next section will describe a perspective
on organizational change that led to an analysis of qualitative data. The section
following the theoretical perspective will describe themes reported in three recent
studies related to change. The integration of theory and data point to seven
communication patterns explaining how organizational members do not change.
The complexity of organizational change
The study of change in social systems has a long history. In the 1960s, Buckley (1967,
1968) argued that social systems continually experience natural tensions due to the
variety in the system’s environment, to the variety and behaviors of the members
within the system, and to the interaction between external and internal sources.
The tension stimulates learning and the regrouping of components or actions. The
changes may assist adaptation to various tensions, but they may also lead to goals,
states, etc. the system has never experienced (Buckley, 1968). Buckley thought of
society as a “complex adaptive system,” and he was concerned with how systems
developed properties to insure their viability (Buckley, 1967, 1968, 1998). In 1968,
Buckley hoped developments in mathematics would soon match the conceptual
richness of these ideas.
Advances in non-linear dynamics would appear to be developments Buckley had
desired. The two most recent bodies of work concern chaos theory and complexity
theory (Holland, 1995; Kauffman, 1993, 1995). Both theories assume system
interactions are part of an autocatalytic process. Autocatalytic or self-reinforcing
processes have three properties:
(1) the processes are iterative or repeated;
(2) the processes are recursive, meaning the outputs for one iteration are the inputs
for the next; and
(3) the processes are multiplicative (i.e. non-linear or non-additive), suggesting that
small effects may accumulate or aggregate to have bigger impacts later.
When researchers model processes as autocatalytic, they employ formulas or
algorithms with mathematical relationships that reﬂect these properties.
Weick’s sensemaking model describes organizing as a function of such an
autocatalytic process. Sense is a function of a cue plus a frame plus a connection
between the frame and the cue (Weick, 1995). However, the framing cycle does not
occur once. It occurs repeatedly until individuals remove equivocality and make
plausible sense (Weick, 1979, 1995, 2001). When individuals communicate, they may
make sense together, and so, communication draws attention to the social and cultural
aspects of making sense. Sensemaking involves a framing process that may reﬂect or
may change culture. The frames may come from culture, and local sensemaking may
accumulate to alter cultural frames. When transformational change occurs, there are
changes in cultural frames and communication practices.
The formulas also contain parameters or constants that determine the intensity of
properties and, especially, the intensity of the interaction between properties or agents.
Organizational researchers generally regard parameters as environmental conditions
or as aspects of the strategic course of an organization (Thietart and Forgues, 1995).
Common organizational parameters include leadership, the diversity of membership
and organizational processes, and the richness of the connectivity between social
actors (Stacey, 1996). These are common parameters, and a change in the critical values
of these parameters would be necessary to reach a state where transformation was
possible. These changes often accompany or are part of changes in core features
mentioned in the introduction. Changes in second order parameters are inherent in
major strategic initiatives and should produce transformational change. The initiatives,
even the changes in second order parameters, have not produced the intended
outcomes very often. Mostly, there was no change in the organization’s culture.
Chaos and complexity researchers refer to the result of one iteration of an
autocatalytic process as a phase and any pattern in a sequence of phases as an
attractor. For example, a phase may be the conﬁguration of agents after one iteration,
and a repetition in a sequence of conﬁgurations would suggest an attractor. The pattern
of phases around an attractor is a basin of attraction. Of course, the parameters,
parameter values, and nature of the process itself limit what phases are possible.
Chaos and complexity researchers refer to the range of all possible outcomes as a phase
space. A particular account of a particular event would be comparable to a phase, and
a pattern in several accounts would be an attractor (Stacey, 2001, 2003). The various
accounts that lead to an organizing theme, the attractor, and the variations in the
central theme would be part of a basin of attraction. A universe of discourse would be
comparable to a phase space. One way of interpreting the failed efforts at
transformational organizational change is to regard these strategic efforts as
maintaining or just modifying the old organizing themes within the original universe
A bifurcation point is a state of turbulence where second order change may be
possible. The system may now move between at least one old basin of attraction and
one new one (Polley, 1997). It is a time of great tension between the old and the new,
and the system must “choose” its future (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984). Once at
a bifurcation point, the system may move to one of ﬁve states. First, the old may
dominate, and the system may return to the previous stable state. Second, the new may
dominate, and the system may move to a new stable state. Third, the system
may maintain a tension and oscillate between two or more states. This pattern may be
a relatively stable pattern of oscillation between points, but it may involve so many
points in a cycle that it may appear to be unstable. Fourth, the system could pass
through many bifurcation points, alternating patterns of stability and instability and
leading to evolutionary changes in which one transformation builds on previous ones.
A particular bifurcation point may be part of a transformational instability. Finally, the
system might have passed through many bifurcation points leading to a continuous
unstable pattern. What appears to be random is limited or bounded by the
autocatalytic processes. The system’s “choice” at a particular bifurcation point
depends on the general nature of the system, the history of past “choices,” parameters
and their values, and the nature of autocatalytic processes. Studying an organization at
a bifurcation point would be an excellent way to learn about communication and
Stacey (1996) described organizational change as conﬂict between a legitimate
system and a shadow system. In this model, the natural tensions of everyday life drive
an informal and emergent structure, the shadow system, and the accumulation of
tensions may challenge the already dominant culture and formal structure, the
legitimate system. Stacey’s description parallels Buckley’s (1967) older description of
social change involving in- and out-groups. A change in parameter simply speeds the
process and movement to one or a succession of bifurcation points.
The complexity of organizational change involves an accumulation of differences.
Social actors construct novel behaviors or behaviors repeated with some modiﬁcations
as part of autocatalytic processes. Some autocatalytic processes encourage greater
novelty or modiﬁcation while others discourage deviation. Various behaviors occur in
relatively stable or unstable conditions. The tensions between these behaviors and the
conditions are the basis for the relative stability of the social system, the system’s
structure. Communication patterns may suggest underlying organizing themes,
attractors, or there may be permutations around central themes, basins of attraction.
The local activities of social actors may disrupt the tension and lead to a state,
a bifurcation point, where the system may change its nature. That is, alternative basins
of attraction may develop. The localized variety within the system, the shadow system,
may naturally accumulate to challenge the established structure and process, the
legitimate system. However, there may be some external disruption of parameters that
stimulates the shadow system to challenge the legitimate system.
The next section describes three studies providing data for this essay.
The remainder of this paper will examine dimensions of organizational discourse,
factors in the autocatalytic processes, and the potential basins of attraction that appear
to develop. Data suggested seven communication patterns.
I will use data reported from three recent case studies. The ﬁrst was a study of the state
ofﬁces of a government agency in the South Western USA (Salem et al., 2003; Salem,
2004). The agency, GOV, had moved from reporting lines within one larger agency to
reporting lines within a different agency, changed the director of the agency (a change
of leadership), initiated a re-engineering project, and moved 200 plus state ofﬁce
members to a new building to be closer to its new reporting agency. All these changes
occurred within two years, and researchers conducted their study after the
announcement of the change in reporting lines and change of leadership and during the
reengineering effort and move. This study occurred at an identiﬁable bifurcation point.
Researchers employed a mixed methods design using both survey and ethnographic
techniques. For qualitative methods, they employed stratiﬁed random sampling to
conduct semi-structured interviews, gathered meaningful documents mentioned in the
interviews, and engaged in limited observation of events suggested by the interviews.
Researchers used Weick’s sensemaking model and complexity theory to interpret and
explain their ﬁndings, and they used a second set of qualitative data gathered nearly
ﬁve years later as a negative case. They developed a survey from established
instruments and attempted comprehensive samples of the ofﬁces three times over the
ﬁve year period; response rates were often in excess of 80 percent. The quantitative
data over ﬁve years led to speciﬁc questions in the ethnographic interviews at the end
of the project.
The second study was at CQ, a 700 member Mid Western US food manufacturer
(Sheil and Houser, 2003). In the early 1990s, a new company president changed hiring
and retirement practices and moved the company to new buildings. A year later, the
president created a senior management team to develop a strategic plan, allocate
resources and make executive decisions. He encouraged cross-functional teams,
removed several layers of hierarchy to ﬂatten the organization, and developed
a separate initiative to hire more women as managers. These ﬁrst two years would be
the most likely time to identify a bifurcation point. Researchers conducted their
investigation ten years after the designation of a new president, but their results
indicate persistent differences. They employed stratiﬁed random sampling to conduct
semi-structured interviews, and they used structuration theory to interpret their
The last study was about a nonproﬁt coalition (Rausch, 2005). The coalition
attempted to bring several smaller groups into an ad hoc organization. The
organization, NNP, was an eight year old organization consisting of ﬁve coalitions
joining to serve better a small community in the North Western USA. The researcher
attempted to interview all the members of the coalition, and the researcher reported
preliminary descriptive themes from qualitative data.
Each study employed differing theoretical frames, and although there were some
methodological differences, there were similar approaches to gathering qualitative
.All studies used semi-structured interviews about communication and change as
the primary method of gathering data.
.Although the ﬁrst two studies used stratiﬁed random sampling and the last
study attempted a comprehensive sample of participants in a smaller
organization, all studies involved more than 20 subjects. For interviews such
as these, data normally saturate between 15 and 20 participants. Extending
interviews past saturation, a feature of all three studies, improves dependability
and conﬁrmability, the qualitative equivalents of reliability and validity (Lincoln
and Guba, 1985; Miles and Huberman, 1994).
.All three studies supplemented interview data with other data such as
quantitative results, analysis of documents, or observation of events to check
interview results. Using alternative data sources is a well-known method of
triangulation and improves credibility and validity.
.Finally, the common patterns across the reports highlighted in this paper emerge
from reports of different organizations, using different theoretical frames but
similar approaches to gathering data.
Such a situation improves transferability, the qualitative equivalent of external
validity (Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Miles and Huberman, 1994). I did not reanalyze the
original data from these studies, but I reviewed the reports looking for commonalities.
I then used labels reﬂecting those commonalities. Most labels were already in one or
more of the original reports.
Results: the communication reasons organizations do not change
When organizational members communicate during intense change, they will generate
organizing themes about uncertainty or a lack of information about speciﬁc changes.
Uncertainty is an inability to describe, predict, or explain (Salem and Williams, 1984),
and complaints of inadequate information are common in organizations (Daniels and
Spiker, 1983). However, information is not part of artifacts such as memos, reports, or
websites. Organizational members create information and knowledge as they make
sense (Salem, 2007; Weick, 1995). Communication is a social process in which
individuals can make sense together, and artifacts are only an opportunity for making
sense, an opportunity for conversation. Complaints about inadequate information are
complaints about the lack of opportunities to make sense together.
Many approaches to change assume management will direct and control the process
(Miller and Cardinal, 1994). Often, it is impossible to involve many people in making
everyday decisions, and managers or a small group tend to simply “download”
decisions to others. Management expects compliance, but this approach fails to gain
acceptance or support for routine management decisions or decisions during change
processes (Clampitt and Williams, 2007; Robbins and Finely, 1996). Commitment to
transformational change will not happen without communication, and lots of it.
Uncertainty, a lack of information, and a sense that there were few opportunities to
reduce uncertainty were common themes in all the studies. At GOV, one organizational
member commented on the move to a new building:
As far as moving to the building, I had to hear it from somebody else. I feel like my
supervisor, since she had all that information, should have held a staff meeting and given us
the information right then and there.
At CQ foods, staff had continuing doubts about the senior management team:
People know that [the senior management] is discussing certain issues or topics, and they
never hear about what the result is. And the reason they don’t hear back is because we don’t
think it is appropriate to communicate the results. A lot of times people are looking for some
formal announcement, and we don’t like to do it that way. We want it to kind of trickle out
into the organization. It is less disruptive that way.
Organizations fail to change when many people believe they are not getting enough
information about the changes. It may be impossible to meet everyone’s information
needs. However, the need to know more is less disruptive when there are many
opportunities for everyone to make sense of the changes. Without the entire
organization participating in conversations about change, transformational change
will not occur.
When organizational members communicate during periods of intense change, they
will generate organizing themes about identiﬁcation. Self-concept is the organized set
of perceptions one has about one’s self (Cushman and Cahn, 1985). An aspect of
self-concept is self-identity, and the organization of various self perceptions associated
with organizational roles constitutes one’s organizational identity (Pratt and Foreman,
2000). Describing one’s self as female is part of one’s self-identity, but describing one’s
self as a department head is part of one’s self-identity and also part of one’s
organizational identity. A person may have multiple identities (Mead, 1934/1962), and
multiple organizational identities (Cheney, 1991). For example, an organizational
member may identify one’s self by one’s professional role, as part of a sub-unit, a unit, a
department, a division, the company, or as a worker.
Individuals develop self-perceptions through interaction (Mead, 1934/1962), and
organizational identiﬁcation emerges in the communication members have with each
other about each other. There are many ways members’ communication works to
develop identiﬁcation (Cheney, 1991; Lammers and Barbour, 2006; Scott, 2007). One
avenue during change efforts is to develop a shared vision and another is to involve
many in strategic planning processes (Robbins and Finely, 1996; Senge et al., 1999).
Change will disrupt organizational identities, and members want to know what they
will become and what the unit, division, or organization will become. Without
communication that builds global and shared identiﬁcation, members will resort to the
older more local and independent identities.
At GOV, there were several variations of local identity. The most prominent
metaphor was of a stepchild. This separated GOV from the larger agency that added
GOV. The GOV members also saw themselves as working within separate
You just have your different sections, and you have your different bosses in each section. You
have your chiefs and all your Indians in different sections and tribes don’t cross paths.
This pattern separates one section from another. GOV members had come to identify
more with their own units rather than with GOV or the agency that now included GOV.
At CQ, researchers identiﬁed several areas of dynamic tension and values
contradictions about identiﬁcation. There were problems integrating new members
into the existing culture, and many members recognized contradictions in the
organization’s espoused values regarding family, work socialization, and risk aversion.
Here, is a good example of the role ambiguity and role conﬂict members felt:
I came here because I was told we wanted to be the most innovative food company in the
industry. Now the word out of (the management team) is that we want to be a “fast follower.”
When did the game plan change? Why should I knock myself out if all we’re doing is
following the industry leaders? I didn’t come here to be a fast follower.
New female hires felt these problems most acutely. Many women managers were lured
by the promise of an innovative and fast-moving organization but were blindsided by
outdated stereotypical perceptions.
At NNP, many members communicated about their inability to deﬁne the role of NNP
and the roles of their parent organizations in NNP:
I think that [...] the (NNP) bylaws put everything down on paper, it’s so nebulous. It’s really
hard to understand who we are – what we are supposed to be doing. So, if someone else
walks in and takes a look at it, they say “wait – this doesn’t make any sense. What power do
you have? What are you supposed to be doing?”.
The researcher classiﬁed this data as part of an “Amorphousness” organizing theme.
All examples illustrated language use and communication between members about
each other during change. These examples are instances of how members bracketed
change. There were instances of metaphors and accounts that reinforced older patterns
or rejected newer ones. The members had not learned how to communicate about a new
During periods of intense change, organizational members will communicate about
trust. Trust is an expectation, assumption, or belief of positive or non-negative
outcomes that one can receive from another person’s future actions during uncertainty
(Bhattacharya et al., 1998). Uncertainty implies vulnerability, and most contemporary
deﬁnitions of trust include some belief in the positive intentions, behavior, or outcomes
of another (Rousseau et al., 1998). Distrust is characterized by fear, skepticism,
cynicism, and wariness (Lewicki et al., 1998). Mistrust, undeﬁned in the literature,
would be an inability to predict the value of engaging with another.
When organizational members distrust the agents of change or each other, strategic
initiatives fail. Employees often distrust management during periods of planned
change. A common way for members to express this distrust is to discuss
organizational politics and the distrust members feel about how management might
At NNP, members displayed trust as part of the themes of “collaboration” and
“providing resources.” An NNP member noted:
I think we really do see the beneﬁts of having people work together. Collaboration takes us
miles, and the networking that goes on there. You know there are a lot of new people coming
in or out of the services ﬁeld and it’s a nice way to get to meet those people in one stop and
interact with them and get their ideas, and I’ve always felt like you get more when you are
working in a group.
These themes may be separate trust themes, but they may also be variations on the
same theme –members trust each other.
At GOV, distrust was at the center of a basin of attraction containing three attributions
about the politics associated with this organizing theme. The ﬁrst account was
“Information is power.” A second account was “It’s just politics.” A ﬁnal variation was
the account that “Decisions are based on favoritism”:
Everybody has a favorite. If you ask the staff, every manager has people who are favorites,
and for whom they do more, or they have people for whom they do less. Oh yes, I think you’ll
hear it from everybody.
Researchers at CQ did not identify a theme directly related to trust, but many of their
examples were of distrust and political activities. These examples were part of their
explanations of the tensions in agency, reﬂexivity, and duality of structure. The
tension emerged from the differences between what managers said and did. One
example is as follows:
Everybody sort of licks their ﬁngers and holds them up to see which way the political wind is
blowing. It comes down to whatever senior management wants. And I’m ﬁne with that. I just
wish they would stop telling us they want our input and commitment. All they really want is
for us to do what they think is best, but they want us to think it’s our idea. I’d rather it just be
like the old days. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.” I think we’d get a lot more done
faster if we just stopped pretending to be inclusive and innovative.
Similar to GOV, CQ members were organizing their comments around the theme of
distrust of management.
The two studies of larger organizations experiencing intense change suggest
distrust organizing themes. In both cases, management or outside forces (e.g. legislative
mandates on GOV) imposed the changes on members. Members might have
communicated trust and support if changes had emerged from within the membership.
However, any themes associated with politics would automatically be about distrust.
Lack of productive humor
Humorous communication increases during intense organizational change. Humor is a
form of communication that promotes laughter from discordant meanings or
relationships (Duncan, 1982). Humorous communication works as a reframing
mechanism (Wendt, 1998), and humor can be a norm and value as part of the culture
(Trice and Beyer, 1993). Humor can be productive in the workplace by bringing social
actors closer together, reducing stress, managing paradox, and building cohesiveness,
but it can also be negative by being self-defeating, derisive, or part of anger (Geddes
and Callister, 2007; Malone, 1980; Martin et al., 1993, 2003; McPherson, 2005; Romero
and Cruthirds, 2006; Stacey, 1996). Organizational members can encourage or
discourage change by how they use humor.
The most vivid examples of humor during change come from GOV. One instance
involved the manager of a section serving on a reengineering team. The manager was
rarely in the ofﬁce due to the team meetings. The manager was also an avid
birdwatcher, and the manager’s workers knew that birdwatchers keep logs of their
bird sightings. The employees posted a log of manager sightings on the manager’s
door as a way of saying they missed him. Another example involved an employee
creating a “Bullshit Ribbon.” The ribbon was comparable to ribbons people wear
commemorating AIDS awareness, victims of breast cancer, or other noble causes. The
employee’s ribbon was brown, and he wore it to meetings as a humorous protest.
GOV researchers regarded these instances as positive humor reducing tension at
GOV. There was no evidence of humor in the CV data, and humor was not a theme in
NNP data, although the subjects were lighthearted. There were no reported instances
of unproductive humor, and the data only suggest that a lack of productive humor
would be a reason organizations do not change.
Poor interpersonal communication skills
The level of interpersonal communication skill will affect the direction of
organizational change. Communication competence is an ability to accomplish goals
with appropriate communication behaviors (Spitzberg and Cupbach, 1984).
Appropriateness refers to meeting the normative expectations of others in the social
situation as well as using those behaviors most appropriate for the task at hand.
Competence requires the performance of various communication skills and the
perception of others that the performance was appropriate.
Three skills appear on most lists of communication skills related to competence.
Responsiveness refers to those behaviors that attempt to understand the other and to
communicate that understanding. These include verbal behaviors such as
paraphrasing, validating, and asking questions and nonverbal behaviors such as
head nods, vocal encouragers, and back channeling. Openness refers to those behaviors
an actor employs to improve the other’s understanding of the actor. Behaviors such as
using personal language, being speciﬁc about experiences and feelings, and self
disclosure may be part of openness. Flexibility is the ability to change communication
behaviors in different situations. Being ﬂexible means adjusting to different goals, tasks,
people, and situations, and the competent communicator makes these adjustments in an
appropriate way. There are alternative expressions for these skills (Cushman and Cahn,
1985; Duran, 1983; Monge et al., 1982; Spitzberg and Cupbach, 1984).
The best evidence for the importance of communication skills comes from the
quantitative data at GOV (Salem, 2004). Researchers used standard scales with norms.
GOV employees described themselves as low to very low on openness and
responsiveness across the entire ﬁve year period. In the qualitative data, they described
themselves as friendly on non-organizational matters or topics unrelated to the
changes. When asked about the low ratings, GOV employees conﬁrmed their generally
low opinion of each other’s skills and of managers’ skills.
At CQ, employees highlighted skill deﬁciencies when describing how long it took an
upper management team to make decisions. The following observation demonstrates
problems with all three basic skills:
You know, if you take three months to make a decision, people will talk and they will call you
the “black hole.” It’s funny because when the senior management team wants something, they
want it yesterday. We have to drop everything we’re doing and get them research, but when
we want to know where a project stands, senior management closes ranks and says nothing.
When members lack communication skills, communicating about change will be more
difﬁcult. Members will have difﬁculty making sense of change, feel greater
uncertainty, identify less with the organization and its changes, and distrust others
Intense change is a turbulent time, and the likelihood for conﬂict increases. Conﬂict is
an expressed struggle over perceived differences (Folger et al., 2005). Individuals
manage conﬂict in one of three general ways. Avoidance means never having to
confront differences directly. Competitive tactics involve direct confrontations but may
vary from argument about positions and ideas, to bids and counter offers, to verbal
aggression and even violence. Integrative communication involves creating common
goals, offering to help each other achieve individual goals, brainstorming to develop
action plans, and creating common systems of accountability. People perceive
integrative conﬂict communication as competent, competitive or controlling strategies
as effective but inappropriate, and avoidant strategies as least competent (Gross
et al., 2004).
In a time of intense organizational change, confronting differences is important.
Conﬂict should exhibit a clash between newer conversational themes and older ones.
Such conversations provide an opportunity to test strategic initiatives against older
assumptions and expectations, and these conversations are the means for constructing
emerging alternative identities, relationships, accounts, routines, and values (Grifﬁn,
2002; Shaw, 2002). Members contrast emerging communication practices with older
One of the curious ﬁndings in the GOV quantitative data was that conﬂict
avoidance was positively correlated to coworker, supervisor, and organizational
relational perceptions. This is the opposite of most organizational data about conﬂict
avoidance. This positive correlation at GOV persisted over the ﬁve years with three
different sets of data using different measures of avoidance. When asked about this
pattern in the ﬁnal qualitative interviews, the members described how they relied on
immediate supervisors to manage local differences rather than working the differences
out between themselves. They also felt that they had no choice but to make the best of
the changes rather than voicing their own opinions.
At CQ, the workers had reached a point of resignation. Most regarded participation
on teams as a waste of their time, and numerous new hires felt marginalized. Many
employees felt a lack of autonomy, and the risks for confrontation were greater than
the rewards for integration.
At NNP, collaboration and integration were prominent:
The very fact [...] we were working [...] (with) 59 different programs and [...] (we) did not
have any transportation and without that communication between [...] agencies we wouldn’t
know that we were duplicating services [...] (One) poor person was scheduled to death and
had 59 case workers and because of the efforts and our abilities to talk with one another, we
can say, “Oh! We can take care of that.” That is not unlike what we can do with all community
The non-proﬁt had established a norm for mutuality, and most members expected to
confront differences productively.
An inappropriate mix of loose and tight coupling
Getting to a bifurcation point capable of producing transformational change involves
an accumulation of differences and a natural loose coupling of current behaviors. But
when the system moves to a transformed state, it exhibits tighter coupling and the
emergence of order from disorder. The development of some hierarchy of activity is
common when systems emerge from transformational phase transitions such as the
bifurcation points far from equilibrium (Barabasi, 2002). Decentralized structures may
be best at initiating innovation and change, but there must be some centralization to
implement (Rogers, 1995). The combination of factors noted above suggests
organizational members may resist transformational change by loosening the
couplings between each other as they cope with the initial disruptions of change and
failing to construct tighter couplings as part of moving to a different set of routines and
Organizational members can decouple their system in three ways (Kingdon, 1973):
(1) Fragmentation is a process of decoupling goals. Fragmentation is a process of
emphasizing local or individual goals at the expense of organizational wide
goals, and fragmentation is the last type of decoupling to occur. There was little
evidence of this in any of the studies, but goals were not an issue in any of the
(2) Dissociation is a process of decoupling horizontal units. There was evidence of
dissociation in the tendencies to localize identities. Members identiﬁed with
their local units and had little appreciation for other units or the whole.
(3) Segmentation is a process of decoupling vertically. The evidence for
segmentation is the global distrust, primarily of management. The distrust
plays a role in the tendency to avoid conﬂict. Organizations experiencing
dissociation and segmentation will have a difﬁcult time accomplishing a uniﬁed
Sustaining transformational change involves the proper mix of loose and tight
coupling. GOV absorbed the various changes over ﬁve years, and the legislature
recently “broke up” GOV but left parts in place as part of newer agency. Since most the
former units of GOV must continue to communicate with each other as they complete
their legal responsibilities, the members of the units continue to maintain old contacts
and relationships despite where they ﬁnd themselves in the bureaucracy. NNP
disbanded before the researcher presented the ﬁnal report. Although the loose
confederation created trusting relationships and a climate of collaboration, it was
difﬁcult to maintain coordinated efforts except in some minor functions. CQ still exists,
but the tensions of the ten year old changes remain.
This essay sought to identify communication patterns explaining how organizations
do not change. The essay began with a description of change from complexity theory
and then followed by identifying patterns in the data from one to three recent studies.
Communication during failed change efforts seldom involves enough communication
opportunities, lacks any sense of emerging identiﬁcation, engenders distrust, and lacks
productive humor. These problems are compounded by conﬂict avoidance and a lack
of interpersonal communication skills. Members’ communication decouples the
system, sheltering the existing culture until it is safe for it to re-emerge later. No change
in the intended direction is likely.
Comparing the results from three studies and comparing the results to the literature
suggested the seven patterns summarized in the last paragraph. There are data and
theories to support the conclusions in this paper. There may be other potential
communication reasons, but these seven are a start.
It is difﬁcult to gather data about social change. Qualitative approaches provide rich
data, but the veracity of such data is suspect because it takes so long to gather and
analyze. It was fortunate that the three studies in this report were comparable in some
ways. Quantitative methods provide greater precision and quicker results with a loss
in richness. The results may be signiﬁcant but meaningless. Mixed designs are another
approach, but such methods still take time.
Fundamental problems with any social change research include how to bracket time
and how to explain differences over intervals. Investigating one case can only result in
credible explanations limited to that case. Linking explanations from one case to
other cases improves matters but can only lead to limited propositions similar to those
made here. Agar (2004) suggested anthropologists could not claim validity for their
work unless they could demonstrate ﬁndings with a simulation. For an organizational
researcher, this would mean gathering data, making conclusions, and demonstrating
the transferability or generalizabilty of conclusions through a simulation. Simulations
range from traditional mathematical models to agent modeling, and different
simulations are more appropriate for demonstrating different conclusions (Gilbert and
Results from this research point to the limitations of management communication
and impersonal communication. Much of management literature assumes an exclusive
place for management, as if managers were not a part of the organizations they
manage. There is also the tendency to associate communication with the production of
a message, as if ﬁnding the right words in the announced change would automatically
bring commitment to the changes. Changing an organization’s culture is a task in and
of itself, a task in addition to the tasks already going on as part of the routine business
of an organization. Changing the communication practices of organizational members
involves a give-and-take in which the change agents might change. Change is a messy
business, and transformational change will not happen unless management is willing
to tolerate the ambiguity and the sense that emerges in communication.
Results also reinforce the importance of communication skills in hiring practices.
Communication occurs when two or more people in a social relationship create
messages to make sense of the episodes they are creating. The process is inherently
interpersonal. Hiring people with basic communication skills and training people in
these skills not only improves the chances for sustaining a vibrant organization, but it
also assists people in the rest of their lives as well.
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About the author
Philip Salem, PhD, University of Denver is a Professor of Communication Studies at Texas State
University. His latest work is The Complexity of Human Communication, published by Hampton
Press. His other publications include work on organizational communication, interpersonal
communication, and communication and technology. He received a Fulbright Senior Specialist
fellowship funding collaborative international scholarship through 2012. Philip Salem can be
contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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