Organizational Development (OD) managers are tasked with bridging leadership gaps that widen as one treks down through the organization to examine the foundation. One of these gaps was named by organization communication researchers in the 70’s and 80’s.
Functionalists: view an organization as a concrete entity with a unitary view, a cooperative system pursuing common interests and goals. Employees are instruments of purposeful action aimed at effectiveness and efficiency.
Interpretivists: an organization adopts pluralistic perspectives with an array of factionalized groups with diverse purposes and goals, a coalition of participants with different priorities. Individuals negotiate their goals, actions, and meaning to achieve a common mission; but they never abandon their different aims, they simply subjugate them to the immediate needs of the company.
When I’m working in an OD role, I jump back and forth between these philosophies daily. When I apply LEAN practices focused on continuous process improvement, I’m thinking and acting as a functionalist; any employee in this role should share a common approach to this task. When I’m documenting work instructions, process is driven by the employee who has a track record for being most efficient in the job – a functionalist approach.
When I focus on the values, goals, and interactions to support collaborative partnerships which can sustain job satisfaction while meeting organization goals, I am thinking and acting as an interpretivist. That is to say, I am interested in how work is done, but I’m focused on the experience employees have while doing the work.
Functionalist managers are likely to look at communication within the organization as “physical” messages, traveling from one point to the next. The “chain of command” is core to technical efficiency and meeting goals.
Interpretivist managers are likely to adopt a meaning-centered view of organizational communication. Value is placed on employee experience as determined through word choice, symbols, actions, and the timing of messages. Stories, rituals, and language are the ongoing processes that constitute organization cultural.
Functionalists endorse standardized rules that apply in every situation.
Interpretivists focus on the here and now processes of interaction and want to learn about the employee’s subjective experience in an effort to understand the unique social dimensions of each unique situation.
Practical example: I recently encouraged an organization to include employee feedback as part of the 30,60,90 day eval process. I suggested employees rate the company and supervisor according to the values published for that company. The HR Manager did not support this concept at all, as the eval should focus entirely on the supervisor evaluating the employee. I was suggesting an interpretivist approach to evals. The HR manager held to a functionalist approach to evals. There are pros and cons for each approach.
This week pay attention to which philosophy “hat” you wear most of the time. Strive to understand the philosophies held by your leads, supervisors, and managers. Interpretivist supervisors managed by functionalist managers are likely to feel devalued and misunderstood. Functionalist supervisors managed by interpretivist managers are likely to feel time is wasted gathering input and striving for consensus before taking action (I could have gotten this done ten times by myself in the time it took to talk about getting the work done). Each philosophy pays a “time price” that impacts culture.
Functionalists pay later.
Interpretivists pay now.
I think it’s useful if Human Resources managers and OD managers can wear both hats and switch hats quickly according to the needs of the organization and employees…which makes me an interpretivist trainer with the capacity to be functionalist. Which hat are you wearing today?