Organizational Communication - A Critical Approach Summary
Dennis K. Mumby
Part 1: Developing a Critical Approach to Organizational Communication
Humans are organizational animals; modern life is defined by organizations and corporations.
Chapter 1: Introducing Organizational Communication
❖ Human beings are communicating, organizing creatures, and we define ourselves largely
through organizational memberships and communicative connections.
❖ Organizational control: “the dynamic communication process through which
organizational stakeholders (employees, managers, owners, shareholders, etc.) struggle to
maximize their stake in an organization.”
❖ Organizations: communicative structures of control.
Organizations as Communicative Structures of Control
❖ Each theory in the fields of management and organizational communication is motivated
by the problems of controlling large numbers of people in specific settings. ❖ Late 19th century: capitalism became the dominant economic system → the new
corporate organization and its employees became a focal point of study.
➢ How can people be motivated to come together to perform specific tasks?
❖ Charles Perrow (1986): “The problems advanced by social scientists have been primarily
the problems of human relations in an authoritarian setting”.
❖ Organizations coordinate the behavior of its members so they can work collectively →
difficult to achieve in practice.
❖ Particularly in for-profit organizations: factors work against the perfect coordination of a
large number of people.
❖ Most important factor: tensions between the goals, beliefs and desires of individual
organization members and those of the larger organization.
➢ Chester Barnard (1938): This fundamental tension or conflict is usually resolved
by subordinating the goals and beliefs of individual organization members to
those of the larger organization.
Examples of Tensions Between Individual and Organizational Goals, Values, and Needs:
❖ All organizational and management theories address the individual-organization tension
in some way: “ How can we exercise control over employees and get them to function in
a coordinated manner?”
➢ One of the earliest social scientists to focus explicitly on the issue of
organizational control: Arthur Tannenbaum.
➢ Social organization: an ordered arrangement of individual human interactions.
➢ Control processes helps circumscribe idiosyncratic (individual) behaviors and
keep them conformant to the rational plan of organization.
❖ Organization members are not simply passive recipients of control mechanisms.
➢ Employees have individually and collectively resisted management efforts to limit
their autonomy in the workplace.
➢ Control is a dialectical process: control is never a linear, cause-and-effect
phenomenon but is complex and ambiguous; organizational control mechanisms
often produce creative employee responses → unintended outcomes for the
■ Efforts to engineer organizational culture/instill certain values in
employees are sometimes hijacked by employees for their own ends or
employees create their own countercultures, rejecting the values
communicated by management.
Defining “Organizational Communication”
❖ W. Charles Redding (1988)
➢ Widely regarded as the founder of the field of organizational communication.
➢ Argues that all complex organizations (social structures large enough to make
face-to-face communication among all members impossible at all times) exhibit
the following four essential features:
2. Differentiation of tasks and functions.
3. Goal orientation.
❖ Organizations exhibit interdependence insofar as no member can function without
affecting, and being affected by, other organization members.
➢ Agency: the ability to influence others.
❖ All complex organizations consist of intricate webs of interconnected communication
❖ Organizations have become increasingly complex and global → interdependence:
significant and defining feature.
❖ Many large organizations depend on a complicated array of subsidiaries, outsourcing
processes, communication technologies, and leveraged financial structures in order to
❖ 2008: Collapse of several financial institutions → effect on employees AND the global
economy, which went into recession as a result.
Differentiation of Tasks and Functions
❖ All organizations operate according to the principle of division of labor, in which
members specialize in particular tasks and the organization as a whole is divided into
❖ Adam Smith (18th Century): Description of pin manufacture:
➢ Many more pins can be produced when the manufacturing process is divided into
many specialized tasks.
➢ Late 19th/ early 20th century: introduction of scientific management principles
into most large organizations.
❖ Emergence of the ‘post-bureaucratic’ organization and job enrichment has somewhat
modified this principle.
❖ Remains a basic feature of modern capitalism (production line, fast-food restaurants).
❖ Organizations, whether nonprofit or for profit, are oriented toward particular goals.
❖ One could argue that the goals of an organization are what provide it with its particular
character, coalescing its members into something more than a random group of
❖ Barnard (1938): “An organization comes into being when there are persons able to
communicate with each other, who are willing to contribute to action to accomplish a