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Now and then there are debates whether the organizations should be thought of as “simple” or “complicated” or “complex” systems. There are different theories on how the complexity builds up and where the “boundary” between “complicated” and “complex” exists.

I think this whole debate misses the point. There is no organization. There are only interdependent people who co-operate and interact in a continuous dynamic process without clear start- or endpoints. To question whether the “organization” is simple or complex is just a generalized abstraction. Instead of asking that kind of questions, we should study social processes.

In this post I will introduce few different studies from social psychology. I seek to clarify the question about whether the people should be studied as individuals or as completely social creatures.

Studies about people affecting each other

In the year 1897 Norman Triplett, who was interested on cycling, had an idea that presence of other people seemed to contribute to the effectiveness of given task. He studied this with kids using fishing rods. He measured the time of reeling the line in, within and without a peer group. His conclusions were that in a group kids were faster. This phenomenon is called social facilitation.

Later, Robert Zajonc (who studied not only humans, but cockroaches as well) came to a conclusion that only easy or well-trained routine performances are improved, but harder or not-so-well-mastered performances are actually getting worse in the presence of others. This effect is called social inhibition. So there are quite well-established research results on the effect of others’ presence to the performance.

In an organizational context this was studied in Hawthorne experiments. In 1940’s there was a study initiated by a company called Hawthorne Works to see whether the effectiveness of employees would be improved by making adjustments to the work environment (such as adjusting lighting, amount of breaks, work-time etc). The result was that it didn’t matter what adjustments were made, the effectiveness was always improved. Actually the improvement didn’t have nothing to do with the adjustments, it happened because people knew they were measured and studied. This is called the Hawthorne effect.

Lippitt & White made a research with 11-year-old boys and leadership styles. They compared authoritative, democratic and Laissez-fair style of leadership. The finding was that democratic and authoritative leadership styles brought best results. However, in authoritative groups the boys were more aggressive and more dependent on the leader (as well as more dissatisfied with the leader). In the democratic group the result was as good as in the authoritative group, but atmosphere was better than in both of the other groups. This finding is often used to support democratic working practices (such as Agile SW development practices).

Solomon Asch made studies about people estimating the length of visual lines. In these experiments there were “fake” participants also who knowingly gave wrong estimates on the lengths. About one third of the real subjects followed these fake estimates even though the estimations were clearly not right. What is even more interesting is that many of the subjects said in a later interviews that they really saw the lines as wide as their estimates were, so there weren’t consciously estimating them wrongly. This phenomenon is called conformity. We will tend to adapt to the views of others.

Muzaver Sherif conducted quite similar experiments with light spots in the darkness. Subjects had to estimate how much they moved in a certain time. In reality the spots weren’t moving at all, only the little movements of their own eyes made them think so, as there were no reference points in the darkness. In a group the estimates were clearly more close to each others than without groups. However, there were also clear indication that some people had less conformity than others.

Conformity suggests that people seek the help of others when they are in a situation where the reality is unclear. This was also shown in the famous experiment Orson Welles conducted in 1938. Radio program announced that Martians have landed on the earth – most people relied on the knowledge of each others and couldn’t really understand it was just a prank.

The downside of conformity is shown in the unfortunate murder of Kitty Genovese. Many people saw the accident from their nearby houses but didn’t go to help her. Later studies have shown that to get help is more unlikely if there are more people witnessing the accident. This is called the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome. The likely reasons for this are the pressure for conformity and diffusion of responsibility, among other things.

Stanley Milgram made also a famous study about the obedience to authority. In his experiments the subjects were told that they would help to study learning of vocabulary. Whenever the researcher said they should give a little electric shock to the fake subject of study. The amount of electricity was increased until the fake subject was screaming or even passed out. 26 out of 40 participants gave these maximum amounts of voltage just because they were asked by the researcher. This result has important resemblance with authority – authoritarian relationships limit people’s own thinking.

Philip Zimbardo made a famous prison study on Stanford university, which also showed how people might became violent in certain conditions. Like Genovese syndrome, these two studies are examples of how the social processes can also be very destructive.

Leon Festinger made a study about soldiers who had to eat grasshoppers in order to get ready for surviving in extreme conditions. Two groups were formed – those who got smaller rewards for eating the grasshoppers changed their attitude more positive towards eating them. This suggests that people who got bigger reward thought they were eating disgusting food, whereas the ones with smaller rewards had to explain their own activity by changing their attitude. This would suggest that whenever people have committed themselves to something they actively seek to find meaningful reasons for their activities. (Thus seeking commitment can also be good strategy for changing people’s attitudes.)

What we can learn from the studies?

It is very well established fact that people do affect each others. So when we think about social processes we need to take into account the social nature of human beings. It is not just about tasks and processes. People can’t be governed as if they are mechanistic individuals, neither can they be governed as if they were systems. The best way to think about people is to see them as dynamic, interactive processes. One useful theory for understanding what those so called “organizations” are comes from Ralph D. Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw – theory of Complex Responsive Processes. It shows how people form patterns in their interactions, which are influenced with e.g. above studied phenomena. These patterns are what we might generalize and call “organizations” or “working practices” or “goals and visions”.

So, what is social complexity?

Social complexity means that whenever people are together, patterns of interaction that can’t be found from individuals alone emerge. These patterns can be very complex even between two people (think about married couple). When the amount of people increases the patterns can change but it doesn’t mean they will become “more” complex. It’s not just a matter of quantity. In fact, patterns in big crowds might be more predictable like the Genovese syndrome shows – the more bystanders the less likely it is that somebody helps. On the other hand, like Sherif showed, the level of conformity varies between people. A right person might have helped Kitty no matter how much people there were around. So the patterns also depend hugely on who exactly are participating the cooperation.

In the future posts I plan to focus more on social complexity especially from the point of view of Social Psychology. Stay tuned!