Eight to Late

Pseudo-communication in organisations

with 7 comments

Introduction

Much of what is termed communication in organisations is but a  one-way, non-interactive process of information transfer. It doesn’t seem right to call this communication, and other terms  such as propaganda  carry too much baggage. In view of this, I’ve been searching for an appropriate term for some time. Now –  after reading a paper by Terence Moran entitled  Propaganda as Pseudocommunication  – I think I have found one.

Moran’s paper discusses how propaganda, particularly in the social and political sphere,  is packaged and sold as genuine communication even though it isn’t –  and hence the term pseudo-communication.   In this post,I draw on the paper to show how one can distinguish between communication and pseudo-communication in organisational life.

Background

Moran’s paper was written in 1978, against a backdrop of political scandal and so, quite naturally, many of the instances of pseudo-communication he discusses are drawn from the politics of the time. For example, he writes:

As Watergate should have taught us, the determined and deliberate mass deceptions that  are promulgated via the mass media by powerful political figures cannot be detected, much less combated easily.

Such propaganda is not the preserve of politicians alone, though. The wonderful world of advertising illustrates how pseudo-communication works in insidious ways that are not immediately apparent. For example, many car or liquor advertisements attempt to associate the advertised brand with sophistication and style, suggesting that somehow those who consume the product will be transformed into sophisticates.

As Moran states:

It was reported in the Wall Street Journal of August 14, 1978 that the the Federal Trade Commission  finally has realized that advertisements carry messages via symbol systems other than language. The problem is in deciding how to recognise, analyse and legislate against deceptive messages

Indeed! And I would add that  the problem has only become worse in the 30 odd years since Mr. Moran wrote those words.

More relevant to those of  us who work in organisation-land, however, is the fact that  sophisticated pseudo-communication has wormed its way into the corporate world, a prime example being  mission/vision statements that seem to be de rigueur for corporations. Such pseudo-communications are rife with platitudes, a point that Paul Culmsee and I explore at length in Chapter 1 of our book.

Due to the increasing sophistication of pseudo-communication it can sometimes be hard to distinguish it from the genuine stuff.  Moran  offers some tips that can help us do this.

Distinguishing between communication and pseudo-communication

Moran describes several characteristics of pseudo-communication vis-à-vis its authentic cousin. I describe some of  these below with particular reference to pseudo-communication in organisations.

1. Control and interpretation

In organisational pseudo-communication  the receiver is not free to interpret the message as per his or her own understanding. Instead, the sender determines the meaning of the message and receivers are  expected to “interpret” the message as the sender requires them to. An excellent example of this are corporate mission/vision statements – employees are required to understand these as per the officially endorsed interpretation.

Summarising: in communication control is shared between the sender and receiver whereas in pseudo-communication, control rests solely with the sender.

2. Stated and actual purpose

To put it quite bluntly, the aim of most employee-directed corporate pseudo communication is to get employees to behave in ways that the organisation would like them to. Thus, although pseudo-communiques may use words like autonomy and empowerment  they are directed towards achieving organisational objectives, not those of employees.

Summarising: in communication the stated and actual goals are the same whereas in pseudo-communication they are different. Specifically, in pseudo-communication  actual purposes are hidden and are often contradictory to the stated ones.

3. Thinking and analysis

Following from the above  it seems pretty clear that the success of organisational pseudo-communication  hinges on employees not analysing messages in an individualistic or critical way. If they did, they would see it for them for the propaganda that they actually are. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that most organisational pseudo-communication is generally are aimed at encouraging groupthink at the level of the entire organisation.

A corollary of this is that in communication it is assumed that the receiver will act on the message in ways that he or she deems  appropriate whereas in pseudo-communication the receiver is encouraged to act in “organisationally acceptable” ways.

Summarising: in communication it is expected that receivers will analyse the message individually in a critical way so as to reach their own conclusions. In pseudo-communication  however, receivers are expected to think about the message in a standard, politically acceptable way.

4. Rational vs. emotional appeal

Since pseudo-communication works best by dulling  the critical faculties of recipients, it seems clear that it should aim evoke a emotional response rather than a rational (or carefully considered) one.  Genuine communication, on the other hand, makes clear the relationship between elements of the message and supporting evidence so that receivers can  evaluate it for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

Summarising:  communication makes an appeal to the receivers’ critical/rational side whereas pseudo-communication aims to  make an emotional connection with receivers.

5. Means and ends

In  organisational pseudo-communication such as mission/vision statements and the strategies that arise from it, the ends are seen as justifying the means. The means are generally assumed to be value-free in that it is OK to do whatever it takes to achieve organisational goals, regardless of the ethical or moral implications. In contrast, in (genuine) communication, means and ends are intimately entwined and are open to evaluation on rational and moral/ethical bases.

Summarising: in pseudo-communication, the ends are seen as justiying the means whereas in communication they are not.

6. World view

In organisational pseudo-communication the the organisation’s world is seen as being inherently simple, so much so that it can be captured using catchy slogans such as “Delivering value” or “Connecting people” or whatever. Communication, on the other hand,   acknowledges the existence of intractable problems and alternate worldviews and thus viewing the world as being inherently complex.  As Moran puts it, “the pseudo-communicator is always endeavouring to have us accept a simplified view of life.” Most corporate mission and vision statements will attest to the truth of this.

Summarisingpseudo communication over-simplifies or ignore  difficult or inconvenient issues whereas communication acknowledges them.

Conclusion

Although Moran wrote his paper over 30 years ago, his message is now more relevant and urgent than ever.  Not only is pseudo-communication prevalent in politics and advertising, it has also permeated organisations and even our social relationships. In view of this, it is ever more important that we are able to distinguish pseudo-communication from the genuine stuff.  Incidentally, I highly recommend that reading  the original paper -it is very readable and even laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

Finally, to indulge in some speculation: I wonder why pseudo-communication is so effective in the organisational world when even a cursory analysis exposes its manipulative nature. I think an answer lies in the fact that modern organisations use powerful, non-obtrusive techniques such as organisational culture initiatives to convince their people of the inherent worth of the organisation and their roles in it. Once this is done, it makes employees less critical and hence more receptive to pseudo-communication. Anyway, that is fodder for another post. For now, I leave you to ponder the points made above and perhaps use them in analysing (pseudo)communication in your own organisation.

Written by K

January 23, 2013 at 9:36 pm

7 Responses

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  1. A thoughtful post. Thank you. May I riff away on it?

    In retrospect, the whole thing of mission, vision, etc has led corporations down a dark garden path…and has been a waste of 20 years of people’s time, thought and money. Which is not to say that organizations ought not to be clear about what they exist to do… but what is clear is that just like clothing and cars and music, there are trends and fads in the business world and no one wants to watch the bandwagon drive by without hopping on.

    Corporate Communication is an offshoot of PR and has always had an element of propaganda, so I wonder why we’re surprised by it when we see it so clearly now, except the explosion of academic courses and practitioners helps to maintain the fog of illusion. Throughout history, has there not been manipulation through misinformation?

    Once upon a time, there were two forces: one is the positive spin on things, a force that’s been in the corporate world ever since bands of roaming sales folk in the middle ages, (if not before) and later, the explosion of 17th C. promotional leaflets and later, all forms of journalism. The other force — albeit a brief one — was the value-laden creation of internal communications, corporate communication or organizational communication aimed at two-way communication between the organization and its people. It did not last long. That major depression (or recession) of ’81/82 started the slide away from any real values of communication within organizations. There is always a huge gap between the ideal and the practice or the execution. The third element that’s at play is expectation: somehow we expect corporations to behave like people. I am not sure that’s a realistic expectation. Did you read about how modern-day business practices (and perhaps implicit anti-humanist philosophies) have evolved from the slave trade..? That Taylor was not the first one to get at issues of time and motion and incentives?

    There is a huge difference between the spew of information and actual communication, although the definitions are becoming increasingly vague as well. When people think that tweeting, emailing or texting is communication, or counts as reaching out (how I hate that term) there are issues. But that’s not new. Memos to staff, newsletters, town hall meetings… fireside chats with staff, all are confected products and events with a goal in mind to win the hearts and minds of people to support management, support the organization, become ambassadors for the brand.

    However, communication is a cultural construct, whether that’s person to person, or organization to people. Then there’s power and its use. There are personalities. It gets…complicated. We don’t acknowledge any of that. We don’t acknowledge the messy, gooey, yucky realities of working with other people, of human nature, and how we don’t always work to our best and highest values or beliefs. Corporate communication has always been steeped in PR and promotion and propaganda. That blip in time about two way was an anomaly of a certain post-war generation.

    Organizational communication as a professional practice fought for a place at the management table for years and, very much like the function of Human Resources, once it got there, become a tool of management to be used to meet the needs of management and of the business. The two way ended. Even staff surveys, supposedly to gauge the emotional temperature of an organization, became tools not for betterment, but for bashing.

    In order for people to know recognize propaganda, they need some serious critical thinking skills. I shall refrain from commenting on that ;-)

    Lest I sound pessimistic: Until our business models change, until our society changes, communication in a corporate setting will not be communication in the true, real meaning of the terms. It will be the distribution of information in support of a specific narrative, promoting a version of something that may or may not be true in order to look good, put positive spin, and stay out of the headlines. *end of riff, or is it rant..?* :-)

    FS

    January 24, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    • First off, I enjoyed your rant (and, of course, the post)!

      How much of the problem of using what was originally intended as a real communication tool for a pseudo-communication tool (employee surveys, “fireside chats”, etc) is caused by a misunderstanding and lack of honest leadership in managerial structures?

      As I read the post and this reply, I couldn’t help but be thrown back to another few posts on the nature of leadership – there seems to be a connection between pseudo-communication and a lack of real leadership.

      Maybe the root lies with organizational managers being unwilling to admit (or believe?) that they are not necessarily the smartest one in the room; they do not have all the answers. If they were willing to accept that they do not NEED to have all the answers, but should have a staff of relatively competent people that can DEVELOP those answers, perhaps real and honest communication in ordganizations could thrive.

      Chris

      January 25, 2013 at 2:17 am

      • Hi Chris,

        Thanks for your comment. Indeed, inflated managerial egos are perhaps the most common reasons for the lack of genuine communication organisations. As you say, this is an issue of leadership: most managers are not leaders, but unfortunately in the present day organisations the two are often conflated. Genuine leaders will not only tolerate dissenting opinions, they will positively welcome them, as robust debate leads to better decisions.

        Regards,

        Kailash.

        K

        January 26, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    • Hi FS,

      Thanks for the riff; you’ve covered a lot of interesting territory!

      You’re right – we should not be surprised at the “pseudo-communicative” nature of organisational communications. They are, after all, aimed at generally portraying an organisation in a positive light. Nevertheless, I would argue that it has become harder to see through this because a) we have become inured to it and b) pseudo-communication has become more sophisticated. As you mention, there is an urgent need for people to develop the skills (and desire!) to analyse “communication” critically so that they can decide for themselves as to how they should react to it. Sure, there are practical concerns such as keeping one’s job etc., but that does not absolve one from one’s responsibility to think for oneself.

      Management schools, unfortunately, do not teach critical thinking – least of all about the foundations of management itself. This is changing, albeit slowly. I’m currently reading a brilliant book, Making Sense of Management by Hugh Wilmott and Mats Alvesson. The book sets out a foundation for practitioners and researchers to develop a critical perspective on management. The ideas explored in it have not made it to mainstream management research or education so they’re probably a way off from management practice. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in my book and in earlier posts, I’m cautiously optimistic.

      This ties in to the point you make about values. Indeed, most of the important problems we face at work and in the social sphere are not going to be settled by reason alone – this is true for relatively mundane matters such as organisational strategy as it is for big picture topics such as climate change. Our viewpoints on these issues are indelibly tinged with our values. As I have written in earlier posts and elsewhere, rational dialogue – in which people are willing to offer their views and have them debated openly – is perhaps the only way to make progress on these. And that is communication in the truest sense of the word.

      Finally, the point you make about communication being a cultural construct is an important one. I see the truth of this everyday in my current role, where I work with a number of people from different cultures everyday. It has convinced me more than ever that communication in organisations is (or ought to be!) about building relationships rather than conveying information.

      Thanks again for your thoughts – much appreciated, as always.

      Regards,

      K.

      K

      January 26, 2013 at 11:38 pm

  2. As it happens sometimes one just stumbles upon a thought provoking read as I did with this piece.

    After a lifetime of being self employed, I was engaged by a group that I had contracted with for years to start doing what I did for them before, but now as an employee. It would become the least edifying experience of my life. In the end it pushed my caution about groups into outright cynicism. I’m 65 years old, still work at my craft and self employed, thankfully, again. I have the good fortune to teach youngsters now and again in the course of my business. I try as emphatically as I can to make them think this: do everything in your power to never make a career of working for another person or group of persons. Perhaps your gains will be smaller, but they will be yours.

    Mark

    February 7, 2013 at 6:50 am

  3. Interesting post. Reminds me of a picture we made a while back about “pseudo-engagement” – have a look:

    http://www.delta7.com/you-are-engaged/

    The one point I’m not sure about is that messages with more emotional than rational appeal are necessarily pseudo-communicative. Why should communication that appeals to people’s emotions be any less communication than a rational presentation?

    A much bigger issue for me is the fact that so much communication just isn’t meaningful to anyone.

    As part of my job I have to go through endless piles of internal comms that’s highly rational but highly abstract and filled with jargon that helps to conceal the fact that nobody actually knows what’s going on! In the absence of meaningful direction at the top, internal branding and engagement departments churn out propaganda, but to be honest I think a lot of this just washes over people who have been in the business for more than a few years.

    Kailash’s last comment has the real solution, which is always genuine dialogue, although again I would suggest the key to successful dialogue is not that it’s necessarily rational, but that it’s open and honest.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Steve

    Steve

    March 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm

  4. That reminds me of the workplace environment. Yeah there is need for effective communication for the best possible outcomes.


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