Pseudo-communication in organisations
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.
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.
Summarising: pseudo communication over-simplifies or ignore difficult or inconvenient issues whereas communication acknowledges them.
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.