Friday, July 8, 2011

A Professional Distaste for Administration?

Ever had to deal with difficult administrative personnel pressing you to adhere to some (@?$&#!!) company policy? Regardless of your own personal experiences, the euphemisms abound for administration (the powers that be, the higher ups, paper tigers, tai chi masters, etc) suggest that the administrative department is difficult, bureaucratic, meddling and restrictive. As a young employee joining a company, one of the first few things an attached mentor often shares in a "between you and me" moment is his or her gripe with administrative policy.

Administrators do have a crucial role to play in organisations. They set the boundaries and parameters within which organisation members are allowed to play. Administrators are often (either perceived as or truly) detached from the idealisms of the organisation, as their primary function is to regulate the workflow and processes of the organisation, in the hopes of ensuring that certain outcomes (often mundane ones) are achieved, such as neater procedures, safety, transparent accounts, etc. It therefore often makes sense to employ administrators who might not share the same essential pursuits of the other members of the organisation, so that a more objective and strict execution of implementations, policies, rules and regulations can result. Enforcing the red tape, so to speak.

How do people respond to difficult, strict and/or assertive administrators, particularly when those administrators are attempting to necessitate certain policies? According to a 2009 study done by Hekman (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Steensma, Bigley and Hereford (University of Washington), our likelihood of responding positively to administrative pressure (such as to adopt new work behaviour) depends on the degree to which we identify either with our profession or our organisation.

Formalising administrative pressure as Administrative Social Influence (ASI), the authors found that professional employees were most receptive to ASI to adopt new work behaviour when they strongly identified with the organisation and weakly identified with the profession. Conversely, ASI was counterproductive when professional employees identified strongly with the profession while identifying themselves weakly with the organisation.

The authors showed this by looking at a sample of about 200 primary care professionals from a large, non-profit health maintenance organisation. ASI was carried out to get the health professionals to adopt a new internet-mediated email-based technology called secure messaging, designed to reduce patient demand for office visits which in turn lowers expenses. Compliance with ASI was thus the measured dependent variable - whether the health professionals responded promptly (within 24 hours) to secure messages from their patients. The health professionals' organisational and professional identification was measured, and their identification was correlated with their tendency to follow through on the call to use secure messaging. Additionally, their perception towards ASI pressure was measured as well.

The results of their study showed that the more health professionals thought of themselves as part of an organisational team (strong organisational identification), the more they were likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and the less likely they were to perceive ASI as pressuring. The authors cite evidence that administrators are generally seen as "organisational guardians" (Freidson, 2001) and as "prototypical organisational members" (Golden et al., 2000), and when organisational identification is high, "professional employees’ sense of self is tied closely to a group that includes administrators. As a result [...] organizational identification leads professional employees to believe that organizational administrators are like them and on their side." On the other hand, people who identify strongly with their profession care very much about their professional responsibilities and tend to be skeptical of the interests and agenda of administrators who appear to care more about efficiency and profitability rather than high quality service. So, when health professionals have a greater sense of oneness with the nature of their profession rather than the bigger organisation they work within (strong professional identification), they were less likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and were also more likely to perceive ASI as meddling and demanding.

The authors thus conclude that ASI is effective only in limited contexts (i.e., only when one type of identification was relatively high while the other was relatively low). While the authors prudently keep away from commenting on their personal feelings towards "the powers that be", their study implies that organisations should consider encouraging greater social identification of their employees with the organisation if they want to increase employee compliance with new implementations. Might prove less of a problem with professional administrators...
Hekman, D., Steensma, H., Bigley, G., & Hereford, J. (2009). Effects of organizational and professional identification on the relationship between administrators’ social influence and professional employees’ adoption of new work behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (5), 1325-1335 DOI: 10.1037/a0015315
Golden, B., Dukerich, J., & Fabian, F. (2000). The Interpretation And Resolution Of Resource Allocation Issues In Professional Organizations: A Critical Examination Of The Professional-Manager Dichotomy* Journal of Management Studies, 37 (8), 1157-1188 DOI: 10.1111/1467-6486.00220

Freidson, E. (2001). Professionalism: The third logic. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.