Andrew Fastow, the former chief financial officer (CFO) of Enron who was convicted of wire and securities fraud, explains that the culture of an organization starts with the behavior of the top executives. Employees do not follow empty rhetoric though: Employees imitate the behavior and decision-making processes of top management (Useem, 2016). Based on what you have learned in this unit, do you believe this is an accurate statement? How big of an effect can empty rhetoric have on organizational behavior?
Effective communication is a key component to a successful business. The ability of each employee to
communicate on an individual basis and on an organizational level is vital. The ability of an organization to
communicate its message to both its employees and its customers can often determine the success or failure
of a business venture.
The term organizational behavior focuses on how individuals and groups act within organizations.
Communication is simply the act of transferring information from one person (the sender) to another (the
receiver). Beyond this simple definition, however, lies a world of possibilities that make the process complex.
How is the information encoded? How is it transmitted (the channel)? Does the communication occur on a
face-to-face basis, over the telephone, or via a mass media platform where both verbal and nonverbal
communication can occur? Is it written communication meant for an individual, a specific group, or a general
audience? Is it focused on words, or are other visualizations (photographs, graphs, charts, and maps)
The following model of the communication process dramatically simplifies a complex human activity. It
presents the process that occurs when one person (e.g., a manager) communicates an idea to another
person (an employee).
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How Communication Processes
Guide Organizational Behavior
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The desired outcome of any communication process is to have the receiver (or receivers) understand the
message. This concept can almost seem counterintuitive to students who start looking at specific purposes
for messages rather than the general idea of communication. One approach is to say, “I am writing an
argumentative paper. Is it not my goal to get my readers to agree with me?” An employee may say, “I am
writing a memo regarding XYZ products. Is it not my goal to get the customers to purchase the product?” The
answer to both of these questions lies in the answer to another: Can a writer accomplish either of these goals
if the receiver does not understand the message? First and foremost, the message has to be successfully
transmitted from the sender to the receiver (or receivers): If understanding occurs, the message is successful.
Misunderstandings can occur at any stage of the communication process. There are many barriers to
effective communication that can interfere with the transmission of the message, including language and
emotional barriers, lack of attention or interest, expectations, false assumptions, and cultural differences. A
sender must be aware of these barriers and try to reduce their impact.
Within a business, there can be additional obstacles to communication. There are different types of channels.
A manager might speak directly to an employee, for example, or his or her message might go through a
series of other people before reaching all of the employees. Different types of technologies allow for multiple
types of channels, as well, and technologies vary in speed, accuracy, cost, and efficiency.
In “What Was Volkswagen Thinking?,” Useem (2016) begins by discussing the behavior of James Burke, the
CEO of Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s when the company faced a product-tampering crisis. Three
years prior to the crisis, Burke held a meeting with his top executives where he suggested eliminating the
company credo. Burke was concerned that the managers were not reflecting upon the company credo for
everyday decisions. He called for a debate among his top managers about the document and the role of
moral duties in daily business. Instead of voting to remove it, the managers chose to revitalize the message of
the credo within the company (Useem, 2016).
Burke took this step within his organization because it seemed that there was a misunderstanding in the
communication process. The managers were not treating the company credo as a “living document” with a
salient message. In order to address this breakdown in communication, Burke used his position to force a
debate among the top manager, and his actions paid off three years later during the Tylenol capsulepoisoning
crisis that occurred in Chicago-area stores.
When the emergency first broke, Burke was on a plane and could not be reached. Useem (2016) explains
that employees, on their own initiative, ordered Tylenol to be removed from store shelves and publically
Model of the communication process
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warned consumers not to use the product. This resulted in a $100 million loss for the company but is also
considered the gold standard of organizational crisis response. The message Burke sent during the meeting
reinforcing the ideas of the company credo was heard loud and clear by the Johnson & Johnson managers.
Their actions aligned with the company credo and helped to save lives.
Active analysis of the company credo helped to firmly establish the message in the minds of the Johnson &
Johnson managers. This technique can be quite effective in guiding the behavior of an organization because
the response to potential problems has been worked out in advance. Useem (2016) explains that executives
receive a tremendous amount of information throughout the workday. It is difficult to process this much
information on a constant basis, so executives will utilize unwritten scripts to provide responses. These scripts
are unique to each organization and are created through corporate culture. The scripts benefit efficiency, but
when they are not actively examined, such scripts can have an adverse impact on organizational behavior.
The most efficient response is not always the best.
Useem (2016) presents sociologist Diane Vaughan’s concept of the normalization of deviance as an example
of how scripted communication can negatively influence organizational behavior. Vaughan studied NASA
after the Challenger space-shuttle disaster and discovered that the individuals who worked for NASA did not
make a mistake in regard to the safety procedures of the shuttle launch; instead, the mistakes were socially
organized and systematically produced by the behavior of the organization. The managers were conforming
to NASA’s need to meet schedules and set up rules that allowed them to accept more and more risk.
Because the organization was urging them along, the managers accepted a social normalization of the
deviance in the basic engineering principles, and it no longer seemed deviant to them, despite the fact that
they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety. People outside of the situation see the deviance,
Vaughan determined, but those inside do not.
Case Study: Volkswagen Emissions Scandal
In “4 Ways ‘Connection Culture’ Improves Risk Management,” Michael Lee Stallard (2016) explains that
experts have identified organizational culture as one of the reasons for the failure of management at
organizations, such as General Motors, NASA, Nokia, and Volkswagen. Looking at the Volkswagen situation
in detail illustrates Stallard’s point.
Scientists from the University of West Virginia tested Volkswagen diesel vehicles and found that the company
was able to cheat on emission tests with software that indicated the vehicles’ emissions were far lower than
they actually were. Over 11 million vehicles were equipped with the “defeat devices” (Varandani, 2015).
The use of the “defeat device” to fool U.S. regulators has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the company.
As reported by the National Public Radio (NPR) in “U.S. Files Lawsuit Against Volkswagen Over Emissions
Trickery,” the vehicles are actually putting up to 40 times more pollution into the air than U.S. standards allow
(Chappell, 2016). Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen’s U.S. business concerns, testified on Capitol Hill that
over 600,000 vehicles produced by Volkswagen violate the U.S. Clean Air Act. When asked if the software
that disconnected the vehicles’ emissions controls outside of an official emissions testing area was installed
specifically to beat the tests, Horn replied in the affirmative. He said that, to his knowledge, the software was
designed to trick the system and fool U.S. regulators (Chappell, 2016).
The scandal resulted in the resignation of many top-level Volkswagen employees and a drop in the
company’s stock price. Volkswagen faces billions of dollars in potential fines and also the cost of retrofitting its
vehicles with systems to limit emissions. Yet, Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller publicly insists that the
company did not lie to consumers.
In an interview with Sonari Glinton (2016) for NPR, Mueller tried to downplay the issue by calling it a technical
problem. He claimed that Volkswagen had not interpreted American law correctly. He also explained that
Volkswagen’s technical engineers reached their target goals with software solutions that were illegal in
Useem (2016) argues that this organizational culture was deliberately established by Mueller and the other
executives to tinker with the unconscious criteria by which decisions at Volkswagen are made. This relates
directly to Vaughan’s concept of the normalization of deviance. It is not a case of miscommunication: The
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executives clearly communicated their requirements, and the engineers found solutions to reach the targets. It
did not matter if those solutions were illegal. When faced with the certainty of a superior’s wrath or the distant
possibility of an issue with an agency of a foreign government, Useem (2016) argues that most employees
will choose to placate their boss. It is possible, as Mueller indicates in his interview with NPR, that the
engineers did not even see the deviance. They were too caught up in the corporate culture and wrapped up in
unconscious criteria established in the communication of their company.
Chappell, B. (2016, January 4). U.S. files lawsuit against Volkswagen over emissions trickery. Retrieved from
Glinton, S. (2016, January 11). We didn’t lie, Volkswagen CEO says of emissions scandal. Retrieved
Stallard, M. L. (2016, February 20). Michael Lee Stallard: 4 ways “connection culture” improves risk
Useem, J. (2016). What was Volkswagen thinking? The Atlantic Monthly, 317(1), 26-28.
Varandani, S. (2015, December 17). Volkswagen emissions scandal: European parliament backs inquiry into
German automaker, probe could last a year. International Business Times. Retrieved from
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