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I will conclude my series on Social Complexity by looking at well-being in Organizations – a segment that is often neglected by leaders while trying to maximize the profit of a company.

Like all human phenomena, also well-being is thoroughly social phenomenon. It is easy to mistakenly view it as something “individual” as the emotions related to well-being are felt individually, but the basis of these emotions is social, as we shall see.

Social Representations

When we try to make sense of the world around us, we must create some kind of structure. Social representations, a term coined by Serge Moscovici, are a device for this. Earlier we talked about the categories, but representations can be seen as even wider concepts. Social representations are used by groups to enable the members to see the world relatively same way. They enable group members to communicate and give them a “code” to categorize the world.

There are many ways how the social representations are formed and affected. Moscovici studied e.g. how the concept of psychoanalysis was spreading in the French society and found out how the different newspapers (catholic, socialist, liberal) used their own ideologies to discuss the concept. He called this propaganda. Generally, when a group is facing something new that needs discussions and interpretations it will involve sociogenesis:

First the group will make the new concept familiar by anchoring it to some already familiar concepts and representations. (In organizations this could be e.g. talking about Toyota development processes in terms of traditional project management.) The abstract discussions are then objectivized by building a concrete image, metaphor or symbol of it (Lean development). This makes the new concept part of the “common sense”. This process will also strengthen the group identity, as the group is also defining itself while defining that new concept. (Organization becomes “Lean organization”.)

There are different types of representations:

  • Hegemonic social representations are shared by all the groups
  • Emancipatory representations are shared by some subgroups
  • Polemic representations are formed by different subgroups and they are in conflict with each others

Human rights are a good example of social representations. They are normative representations as they include many different norms that should be followed by authorities. Human rights are also closely connected to human well-being.

In organizations we can also see that it is quite usual that some groups share representation such as “Lean”, but others don’t. Thus it is emancipatory social representation. There might also be conflicting views which would make it polemic representation.

Well-being in Organizations

First of all, well-being is experiential. It is holistic estimation of person’s relation to the world around him. In other words, it is how he experiences his relationship with the world. This means that well-being is very tightly connected to the ways a person is in relationship with other people. There are several important elements that contribute to this experiential well-being:

  • Hedonistic neutrality: Small events, both positive and negative, tend to become neutral in time. Large events can leave bigger and longer-lasting traces.
  • Importance of close relationships: Social relations affect both cognitive and biological mechanisms
  • Power of negative: Reactions towards negative events are bigger than towards positive events and thus they also affect the experience of well-being more.
  • Culture: In different cultures, the different emotions are categorized differently.
  • Reconstructive memory: People shape their memories so that they fit their overall world-view.

Also values play a big part in well-being. They guide the actions of people and shape the personal and social identity. If people function according to their values, they feel good about themselves and vice versa. However, it is a mistake that companies could “design” the values for people. As I showed in my previous post, identification with a company isn’t enough to internalize any values. Social identity is built by identification, but people don’t necessarily commit to all aspects of the company. They might use weak identification to separate themselves from the values and highlight their personal identity instead.

Values are also quite universal as they have common psychological and societal basis. Thus it is also quite impossible to design any values that wouldn’t already exist – instead they can only be highlighted. Values might also be affected by organizational propaganda to some extent, but this will also cause problems. First of all, it would require a very strong commitment/internalization to make people submit to the proposed values. If people would be so easily converted to assume certain values (authoritative personality), they would also be prone to strong ingroup favoritism. This leads people to see their own group as homogenous prototype of a “good” group and raise different forms of prejudice against the other groups in the organization – the outgroups. This wouldn’t be beneficial at all for the company.

On the other hand, if there is very strong requirement to act according to the values that are not internalized, it will lead to conflicting social identities that affect people’s self-esteem negatively. They would not feel good about themselves and this will lead to weak identification.

Experiential well-being can also be defined as lack of insecurity and fear. Nowadays companies are anything but secure. People are often put through rigorous tasks and evaluated very critically in order to “improve the productivity”. This will inevitably reduce the amount of commitment and also increase the experience of insecurity and even fear (e.g. of losing one’s job). So the current times are very tough when looking at well-being at work.

Factors that would increase well-being include:

  • Understanding one’s environment
  • Internal representations of close and important people
  • Meaningful long-term social networks

So, in order to increase the well-being it is very important for people to seek peer groups and other social networks. These might include also internet networks, but the quality of interaction is more important than the quantity. If people are in difficult situations, the presence of people in similar situation is very important factor in reducing that anxiety. Good social networks work also as buffers against stress and insecurity. Good news is that it is easy to find people in similar situations inside organizations. Unfortunately these networks are seeking security which can’t be offered by the company. So in practice most people seek these networks outside of the work which again leads to weak identification and decreased commitment.

Feeling of justice in work is also very important factor in well-being and commitment in general. This includes several viewpoints and many of these points can actually be affected by leaders:

  • Consistency and equality in decisions and rules
  • Preventing the biases in decision making
  • Accuracy of information in decision making
  • Possibility for rectification of bad decisions
  • Involvement of people to the decisions that concern them
  • Ethics in decisions
  • Respectful treatment of people

Conclusions

Well-being is very much experiential. It isn’t the Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” that we are dealing with in post-modern society. Instead we are dealing with complex intergroup processes such as social representations as well as with interpersonal processes.

Business organizations often lack the view of how much well-being actually affects the work. Weak identification is seen in practice as lack of commitment, sickness leaves and inefficient cooperation. On the other hand, coercive push for superficial values isn’t helping either. In order to increase the well-being, organizations should strive for decreasing the insecurity and fear, but often it is the contrary that we see in practice. This leads people to seek supportive social networks outside of the workplaces, as they need long-term networks that can build positive social identity.

So, well-being is complex phenomenon and like all social phenomena it requires very flexible and creative ways of interacting. Fixing the viewpoints towards profit and bureaucratic HR practices lack this creativity and is counterproductive for the profits also.

People are social, experiencing beings who need reflexivity and motivating support in their daily activities of building self, social representations and values. Current business organizations and profit-driven, positivist management approaches are ill-equipped for these human needs.

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