21 Objective InterpretiveCHAPTER ● Critical tradition Critical Theory of Communication in Organizations of Stanley Deetz Based on a true story, the 1999 film Erin Brockovich dramatizes the four-year quest of a novice legal researcher to win compensation and damages for victims of corporate irresponsibility.1 Played by Julia Roberts, who received the year’s Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, Brockovich becomes an advocate for more than 600 people poisoned by water contaminated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). As the story unfolds, Brockovich uncovers a series of managerial decisions that eventually cost the company $333 million—the largest judgment awarded in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. Aimed at cutting corporate costs, these managerial moves also resulted in catastrophic health problems for the residents of Hinkley, California, and cost some of them their lives. Like most producers of electricity, PG&E used water to cool the turbine blades of its generators. But it added a rust inhibitor containing hexavalent chro- mium to prolong the life of the blades. Unlike other chromium compounds that are benign or even beneficial, scientists have long known that chrome 6 is harm- ful to humans and animals. Highly toxic water was piped into unlined outdoor ponds, where it seeped into the ground and contaminated the well water in the nearby town. Long-term residents experienced chronic headaches and nose- bleeds, bone deterioration, liver failure, lung failure, reproductive failure, heart failure, and many forms of lethal cancer. Using the chrome 6 additive was a bad decision from the start. Internal com- pany documents reveal that decades before the danger became public, managers in the San Francisco headquarters knew about the well water contamination. Deciding not to fix the problem was the second tragic decision. Directing Hinkley branch officials to say nothing about the contaminated water was the third. Company-paid doctors treated those who became ill but told patients that there was no connection between the generating plant and their illnesses. And when a regulatory board mandated an environmental cleanup, plant managers assured a272
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 273 meeting of 200 concerned citizens that the chromium additive was harmless and even sent out a pamphlet saying that it was good for them. Actually, the water contained 10 times the allowable level of hexavalent chromium. PG&E managers showed continual bad judgment when Ed Masry, the law- yer who employed Erin, tried to negotiate for a family in which the father had Hodgkin’s disease and the mother faced a hysterectomy and a double mastec- tomy. They sent a low-level flunky who offered to buy their home for $250,000 but had no authority to negotiate or discuss health claims. Yet he apparently had been instructed to warn Ed and Erin that they were dealing with a $28 billion company. Big mistake. PG&E later had to pay that family $5 million. Erin Brockovich is just one of many feature films about corporate managers who make decisions without regard for the negative consequences to their employees, consumers, or the general public—others include The Informant, The Insider, Roger and Me, Silkwood, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. These movies tap a growing concern among Americans that something is wrong with the way decisions are reached at the highest levels of business. The modern corporation is protected from direct public control, yet it’s the place where the crucial decisions that affect the everyday lives of citizens are made. University of Colorado communication professor Stanley Deetz has developed a critical communication theory to explore ways to ensure the financial health of corporations while taking into account diverse—and often noneconomic—human interests. Deetz does this by first demonstrating how corporations have become political as well as economic institutions. He then employs advances in communi- cation theory to point out how communication practices within corporations can distort decision making. Finally, he outlines how workplaces can become more productive and democratic through communication reforms.CORPORATE COLONIZATION AND CONTROL OF EVERYDAY LIFE Deetz views multinational corporations such as GM, AT&T, IBM, Time Warner, Disney, and Microsoft as the dominant force in society—more powerful than the church, state, or family in their ability to influence the lives of individuals. For example, more than 90 percent of the mass media outlets—newspaper, broadcast, cable, telephone, and satellite—are owned by just a handful of corporations.2 Deetz notes that hourly reports of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average underscore the absence of an equivalent index of quality in the arts, health care, or the envi- ronment. Media preoccupation with corporate well-being makes President George W. Bush’s post–9/11 equation of consumer spending with patriotism seem almost logical. The corporate executive suite is the place where most decisions are made regarding the use of natural resources, development of new technologies, prod- uct availability, and working relations among people. Deetz says that corpora- tions “control and colonize” modern life in ways that no government or publicCorporate colonization body since the feudal era ever thought possible.3 Yet the fallout of corporateEncroachment of modern control is a sharp decrease in quality of life for the vast majority of citizens.corporations into every Within the lifetime of most of today’s college students, the average Americanarea of life outside the workweek has increased from 40 to 50 hours, and leisure time has declined byworkplace. a corresponding 10 hours. Despite the fact that 85 percent of families with chil- dren now have mothers working outside the home, their real standard of living
274 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION has decreased over the last two decades. The number of full-time workers whose income has fallen below the poverty line has doubled, yet compensation for chief executive officers (CEOs) has risen from 24 times to 290 times that of the average worker.4 Deetz suggests that “we need to consider in depth what type of ‘busi- ness’ this is, who the moral claimants are, how privilege is organized, and what the possible democratic responses are.”5 Deetz’ theory of communication is critical in that he wants to critique the easy assumption that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” More specifically, he wants to examine communication practices in organizations that undermine fully representative decision making and thus reduce the quality, innovation, and fairness of company policy.INFORMATION OR COMMUNICATION: TRANSMISSION OR THE CREATION OF MEANING Deetz begins his analysis by challenging the view that communication is the transmission of information. Even though a majority of human communication scholars now dismiss the familiar source → message → channel → receiver con- ception of communication, the conduit model is still taken for granted in orga-Information model nizations and in everyday life. There’s an intuitive appeal in the idea that wordsA view that communica- refer to real things—that by using the right words we can express state-of-the-arttion is merely a conduit knowledge. As Deetz notes, “Clearly, the public really wants to believe in anfor the transmission of in- independent reality.”6 He warns, however, that as long as we accept the notionformation about the realworld. that communication is merely the transmission of information, we will continue to perpetuate corporate dominance over every aspect of our lives. Consider PG&E’s annual report. The sanitized numbers present themselves as facts compiled and categorized according to “standard accounting proce- dures.” But Deetz contends that each line item is constitutive—created by corpo- rate decision makers who have the power to make their decisions stick. What seems to be value-free information is really meaning in formation. The end-of- the-year audit is not fact—it’s artifact. All corporate information is an outcome of political processes that are usually undemocratic and have consequences that usually hurt democracy. In place of the information model of messages, Deetz presents a communication model that regards language as the principal medium through which social real- ity is created and sustained. He states that “language does not represent thingsCommunication model that already exist. In fact, language is a part of the production of the thing thatA view that language is we treat as being self-evident and natural within the society.”7 Humanists like I. A.the principal medium Richards have long pointed out that meanings are in people, not in words (seethrough which social re- Chapter 4). But Deetz moves even further away from a representational view ofality is created and sus-tained. language when he raises the question, Whose meanings are in people? Once we accept that organizational forms are continually produced and reproduced through language, we’ll understand that corporations like PG&E produce not only electricity, but also meaning. People who adopt the lingo of big business may not be aware that they are putting corporate values into play. For example, the bottom line on a profit-and-loss statement is only that—the last line on the financial report. But a CEO’s continual use of the term bottom line to justify all managerial deci- sions produces a perceived reality that shuts out nonfinancial considerations. When ordinary citizens begin to use this economic idiom to characterize the deciding or crucial factor in their own family decisions, they reinforce and
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 275 INFORMATION COMMUNICATION MODEL MODEL Managerial Control: Strategy Consent Codetermination: Involvement Participation FIGURE 21–1 Two Approaches to Organizational Practice Based on Deetz, Transforming Communication, Transforming Business, Chapter 7 expand the influence of corporate thinking in life without even realizing they are doing so. Figure 21–1 contrasts Deetz’ communication approach to organizational practices with an information approach that regards language as neutral and neutered. Like Pearce and Cronen (see Chapter 6), Deetz considers commu- nication to be the ongoing social construction of meaning. But his critical theory differs from CMM in that he thinks the issue of power runs through all language and communication. Deetz would not be surprised that PG&E workers or residents of Hinkley had no say in the plant’s environmental policies. He believes that managerial control often takes precedence over rep- resentation of conflicting interests and long-term company and community health. The fundamental issue in my analysis is control and how different groups are rep- resented in decision making. . . . Since industrialization, managers in American corporations have primarily operated from a philosophy of control.8 The upper level of Figure 21–1 represents corporate decision processes that systematically exclude the voices of people who are directly affected by the deci- sions. Deetz labels this practice managerial control. The bottom half of the figure pictures decision processes that invite open dialogue among all stakeholders. Deetz calls this practice codetermination. When coupled with the constitutive view of communication, codetermination represents the “collaborative collective con- structions of self, other, and the world”9 that Deetz believes are the product ofCodetermination participatory democracy.Collaborative decision The 2 3 2 nature of Figure 21–1 yields four different ways in which publicmaking; participatory de- decisions—including corporate ones—can be made: strategy, consent, involvement,mocracy in the work- and participation. Deetz’ analysis of these four corporate practices provides theplace. core of his critique of managerialism.
276 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATIONSTRATEGY: OVERT MANAGERIAL MOVES TO EXTEND CONTROL Consistent with Deetz’ view of corporate control, Erin Brockovich never portrays a PG&E manager whom the viewer can despise. Deetz makes it clear that indi-Managerialism vidual managers are not the problem. The real culprit is managerialism. DeetzA systematic logic, set describes managerialism as discourse based on “a kind of systematic logic, a setof routine practices, and of routine practices, and ideology” that values control above all else.10 Stockhold-ideology that values ers want profits and workers desire freedom, but management craves control.control over all otherconcerns. Whenever there’s a corporate disaster or scandal, the public and media look for a scapegoat or “bad apple” who’s responsible. Deetz thinks that’s short- sighted because it diverts attention away from a failed managerial system based on control. He cites social psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, which suggests we’d do well to stop talking about a few bad apples and look at the consequences of what happens when you put good people in bad barrels.11 Erin Brockovich offers a glimpse of managerial control when lawyer Ed teams up with a large corporate firm to pursue the legal actions against the power company. Although Erin is the one who did extensive research at the county water board and later spent months garnering signed complaints from all 634 adult residents of Hinkley, the “suits” at the large firm regard her as unprofes- sional and try to shut her out from their deliberations. Many workers experience that same dictatorial style in the expressed and implied messages that come down from the top: “Because I’m the boss.” “Because I say so.” “If you don’t like it, quit.” “It’s my way or the highway.” Some employees do object by saying, in effect, “Take this job and shove it,” but this doesn’t increase representation. Choice is often limited to loyalty or exit—“love it or leave it.” Without a voice, workers have no say in the decisions that affect them during the majority of their waking hours. Deetz argues that while control of this sort is disappearing in most enlightened corporations, new forms of control based in communication systems impede any real worker voice in structuring their work. Stockholders face the same either/or dilemma. They can choose to hold their shares or sell them, but neither option offers a way to influence corporate policy. Although management presents itself as making decisions on behalf of stockhold- ers (the owners), Deetz says that the interests of the two groups are often not the same. Because of stock options and “golden parachutes,” top management has benefited more than any other group from the merger mania of the last two decades. Whereas long-term growth would help the average investor, quick prof- its and tight control of costs are the manager’s ticket up the corporate ladder. Regardless of a company’s product line or service, “control is the management product and is most clearly the one on which individual advancement rests.”12 Initially, managers may regard efficiency as a means to the end of higher profits. Deetz is convinced, however, that the desire for control soon becomes a valued end in itself. The desire for control can even exceed the desire for corpo- rate performance. Talking in terms of money is often more for control than respect for efficiency or profits. The control drive of managerialism seeks the medium of its extension, and money is it. . . . Everything that cannot be adequately translated into money is implicitly
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 277 suppressed, and all competing rights of decisions regarding one’s life are made marginal.13 Nowhere is this quest for control more apparent than in the corporate aver- sion to public conflict. The managerial rule of thumb seems to be that conflict is to be “dealt with” rather than openly discussed. Managers are rewarded for “putting out fires,” “running a tight ship,” or “making things run smoothly.” The impersonal nature of these metaphors suggests that executives should place responsibility to the company ahead of personal feelings or ethical concerns. In the corporate context, claims of “company policy” and “just doing my job” pro- vide sufficient moral justification for suppressing almost any act of employee resistance or dissent. Other than accelerating advancement on the managerial career path, there is little evidence that strategic control has beneficial effects. Deetz claims that most corporate successes (or failures) are the result of factors beyond managerial con- trol.14 Control does have distinct disadvantages, however. The cost is high, and workers resent the constant surveillance. Frequent references to “clearing out the deadwood” or “trimming the fat” create an understandable jumpiness among employees, and sometimes their fear is acted out in covert rebellion, as illustrated in Erin Brockovich. When the suit against PG&E appears to be dead in the water because there is no proof that the parent company knew what was going on, a man approaches Erin in a bar. He asks her what she would do if he told her he’d been ordered to shred documents about the toxic water when he worked at the local plant. The papers included a letter from corporate headquarters that says, in effect, The water is poisonous, but it would be better for all involved if this weren’t discussed with the community. Erin asks him if he destroyed the papers as he was told to do. With a conspiratorial smile, he admits that he wasn’t a very good employee. Because dominance creates this kind of resistance, most modern managers pre- fer to maintain control through the voluntary consent of the worker rather than by relying on the strategic use of raw power.CONSENT: UNWITTING ALLEGIANCE TO COVERT CONTROL Deetz is for capitalism, but he’s convinced that corporations are unreasonable. “They expect more than a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay; they want love, respect, and above all loyalty.”15 Even though the company gets the workers’ most rested, alert, and chemical-free portion of the day, apparently that’s not enough. Management insists that allegiance to the company should come before family, friends, church, and community. Through the process Deetz calls consent, most employees willingly give that loyalty without getting much in return. “Consent is the term I use to designate the variety of situations and processes in which someone actively, though unknowingly, accomplishes the interests ofConsent others in the faulty attempt to fulfill his or her own interests. The person isThe process by which complicit in her or his own victimization.”16employees actively, Lynn, a former student of mine, wrote an application log entry for Deetz’though unknowingly, ac- critical theory that poignantly captures the human cost of consent:complish managerial in-terests in a faulty attempt My father was very loyal to his company in the interest of moving up the ladderto fulfill their own. for pay increases. When my brother and I were babies and toddlers, my family
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 279 of labor. That way any talk about power relations must assume the validity of the status quo, thus reproducing the organizational hierarchy rather than challenging it. Real interactive decisions can’t be made in such a context. Systematically distorted communication requires suppression of potential con-Discursive closure flict. This process, which Deetz calls discursive closure, occurs in a variety of ways.Suppression of conflict For example, certain groups of people within an organization may be classified aswithout employees real- “disqualified” to speak on important issues. Arbitrary definitions can be labeledizing that they are com- “natural” to avoid further discussion. The values that guided a manager’s judgmentplicit in their owncensorship. call may be kept hidden so that it appears to be an objective decision. A group may discourage members from talking about certain subjects. Or the organization may allow the discussion of a topic such as gender-linked job classification or pay dif- ferences but discount its importance or quickly divert attention to other issues. Deetz suggests that the force of an organizational practice is strongest when no one even thinks about it. If someone were to question such a routine, employ- ees would be hard-pressed to explain why it is standard operating procedure. The best response they could muster would be a nonanswer: “That’s the way it’s done around here.” Practices that have this taken-for-granted quality are often equated with common sense. Without a clear understanding that commu- nication produces rather than reflects reality (the right side of Figure 21–1), employees will unknowingly consent to the managerial mentality that wants to expand corporate control.INVOLVEMENT: FREE EXPRESSION OF IDEAS, BUT NO VOICE For anyone who has a stake in corporate decisions (all of us?), shifting from managerial control at the top of Figure 21–1 to involvement at the bottom is a crucial move. In political terms, it represents a switch from autocracy to liberal democracy—from managerial decisions made behind closed doors to open dis- cussions where all have the opportunity to express their opinions.Involvement Employee involvement in corporate choices began with a suggestion boxStakeholders’ free ex- mounted on a wall. In some companies, this invitation for expression evolvedpression of ideas that over decades into open forums that look like early-American town meetings. Atmay, or may not, affect their best, these attempts at corporate democracy are based on a commitment tomanagerial decisions. free speech and the value of an open marketplace of ideas (see Nilsen’s ethic of significant choice, pp. 214–215). Deetz claims that liberal eighteenth-century Jeffersonian democracy was based on three notions about communication: (1) freedom of speech guaranteed equitable participation in decision making; (2) persuasion and advocacy were the best ways to reach a good decision; and (3) autonomous individuals could then make up their own minds. Taken together, this meant truth would emerge from the free flow of information in an open marketplace of ideas. As long as people shared the same values, an information-transfer model of communication worked well.17 But in a heterogeneous, postmodern society that’s seldom the case. Organizations in the twenty-first century must operate in a pluralistic and inter- connected world. People have always been different, but it used to be that moun- tains and oceans made it possible to stick with your own kind. Today in business and government, that’s almost impossible. You can’t expect much empathy from a person raised in a different culture, who has had radically different experiences, and who holds a worldview that you might find disturbing. And isolation is no longer an option. As the worldwide economic meltdown in 2008 and the 2010 BP Gulf oil
280 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION spill illustrate, whatever happens up the road or overseas will surely affect us all. Deetz is convinced that if Thomas Jefferson lived downwind of a factory hog farm, the Declaration of Independence he wrote would be a different document.18 An information-transfer view of communication doesn’t work well today. As Deetz surveys present-day corporate communication practices, he con- cludes that “the right of expression appears more central than the right to be informed or to have an effect.”19 Through involvement in discussions of com- pany policy, employees have a chance to air their grievances, state their desires, and recommend alternative ways of working. Many managers use these sessions as a way to give employees a chance to let off steam. But advocacy is not nego- tiation. When workers find out that their ideas aren’t represented in the final decision, they quickly become cynical about the process. Both in national politics and in corporate governance, meaningful democracy requires not only that people have a chance to discuss the issues, they also need to have a voice in the final outcome. Forums provide the opportunity for involve- ment, but voice is not just having a say. It means expressing interests that are freely and openly formed, and then having those interests reflected in joint deci- sions. That’s real participation. Deetz says it’s only possible when all stakeholders realize that their communication creates reality rather than merely describing it.PARTICIPATION: STAKEHOLDER DEMOCRACY IN ACTION Deetz’ theory of communication is critical, but not just negative. While he strongly criticizes the managerial strategy of increasing control over workers, engineering their consent, and granting them free expression without giving them a voice in decisions, he also believes that joint, open decisions in the workplace are pos- sible. Deetz is convinced that “meaningful democratic participation creates better citizens and better social choices, and provides important economic benefits.”20 One of the goals of his theory is to reclaim the possibility of open negotiations of power. He calls it stakeholder democracy. The first move Deetz makes is to expand the list of people who should have a say in how a corporation is run. Besides managers, he sees at least six groups of stakeholders with multiple needs and desires.21Participation Investors seek security of principal and a decent return on their investment.Stakeholder democracy; Workers seek a reasonable wage, safe working conditions, a chance to take pride inthe process by which all their labor, security of employment, and time for their families.stakeholders in an orga- Consumers seek quality goods and services at a fair price.nization negotiate powerand openly reach collab- Suppliers seek a stable demand for their resource with timely payment upon delivery.orative decisions. Host communities seek payment for services provided, stable employment, environ- mental care, and the quality of family and public life enhanced rather than diminished. Greater society and the world community seek environmental care, economic stability, overall civility, and fair treatment of all constituent groups (racial, ethnic, gender). Deetz notes that some stakeholders have taken greater risks and made longer- term investments in a company than typical owners of stock or top-level manag- ers.22 He believes it’s imperative that those who are affected by corporate decisions have a say in how such decisions are made. Of course, this stance runs counter to traditional notions of exclusive stockholder rights or managerial prerogatives, but
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 281 Don’t Get Boxed In My children tend to prefer breakfast cereals that I find to be less than ideal. I also notice that morning after morning they tend to continually re-read the same boxes from which they pour cereal. From what I can tell, nothing on the boxes is untrue and some of it is based on good scientific evidence. The happy children and characters pictured on the box resemble my own kids and the nutritional information seems sound. My issue is not the truth of what’s shown, but who gets a turn to speak on the box and what they decide to leave out. I finally decided to replace these boxes with clear plastic containers where I could insert my own text. I put in pictures of overweight, dumpy children who had eaten a lot of sugar cereals. I included descriptions of the labor practices of the producing company, and if I really disliked the cereal, I included the amount of rat hair allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. Some people worry that I’m manipulating my children by making everyday information political. But I think they miss the point. I don’t make the information on the box political—it already is. And making it obvious that this information is politicized doesn’t make it good or bad information. It only shows that all information is sponsored. All data, whether scientific or not, is value-laden and hence political. Truth per se is not the issue on the cereal box. Kellogg, Post, General Mills, government agencies and I have different preferences and therefore produce and reproduce different truths. None of us is more noble or evil by producing a particular truth. But in routine everyday life, Kellogg has a much greater opportunity to provide its perspective than I or others do. The discussion that my substitute package stimulates is more important than the issue of truth alone. Do I or others manipulate my children? We all may—the manufacturer and the government via invisible privilege, not making it clear that other information is interesting and relevant. I too manipulate if I use my parental power to enforce my preference on my children. But the consequences in my household are quite different. We have lively breakfast conversations as we discuss what is worth knowing and what we’d like to know. My kids write their own texts for my cereal. As a result, we all end up making more openly-chosen, complex decisions at the supermarket.FIGURE 21–2 A Morning Exercise Created by Stan DeetzDeetz says there’s no legitimate basis for privileging one group of stakeholdersover another. He reminds us that nature did not make corporations—we did. The rights and responsibilities of people are not given in advance by nature or by a privileged, universal value structure, but are negotiated through interaction.23 As you scan the class of stakeholders and their interests, listed on the oppositepage, it’s obvious that current corporate governance is not set up to address theirsocial, financial, and ecological goals. In this age of Enron and Halliburton, relying
282 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION on managerial goodwill would seem a joke. Some would expect government to insert social values into the marketplace, but, except for brief periods of time following a crisis, government policy is largely influenced by business leaders and lobbyists. Free-enterprise advocates suggest that the unseen hand of the market will sort things out, but that reduces all values to a matter of dollars and cents—and those not equitably. Deetz offers his appraisal and previews his solution: Collectively, stewardship, government regulation and markets offer weak mecha- nisms for value inclusion and virtually no support for communication processes that create win/win situations where multiple stakeholders can successfully pursue their mutual interests. . . . Ultimately, the best hope rests in getting wider social values into the decisional premises, processes and routines in business rather than trying to direct them from the outside. This draws our attention to new forms of governance and communication.24POLITICALLY ATTENTIVE RELATIONAL CONSTRUCTIONISM (PARC) Deetz proposes a politically attentive relational constructionism model (PARC) as an enriched form of many critical theories of communication, including four other media and feminist theories presented in later chapters.25 He refers to PARC as “a collaborative constitutive view of communication based in conflict rather than in person-centered and consensus oriented models of communication.”26PARC model The politically attentive feature of PARC refers to honestly exploring thePolitically attentive power-in-play behind so-called neutral facts and taken-for-granted positions.relational constructionism; For example, a PARC approach would examine specific “standard accountinga collaborative view of practices” to uncover how they came to be—who benefited and who sufferedcommunication basedin conflict. loss by their adoption. Since he regards all information as political, Deetz believes an organization’s stakeholders need to recover conflict that was repressed in order to get all interests on the table. Only in this way can beneficial and fair negotiations take place. The relational constructionism feature of PARC refers to the social construction of communication—the constitutive nature of language. Deetz shares this core commitment with a growing number of theorists in the discipline. He uses the term relational rather than social because he wants to be clear that it not only covers social relationships created by persons-in-conversation, but also refers to the meaning we give everything we label in the world—money, profit, work, bankruptcy, pollution, love, quality time, and anything else. Perhaps the best way to picture an application of PARC within an organiza- tion is to look at the list of requirements for negotiation among stakeholders that Deetz lays down.27 1. Stakeholders who have divergent interests, not set positions. 2. Stakeholders who possess roughly the same level of communication skill. 3. Authority relationships and power positions are set aside. 4. All stakeholders have an equal opportunity to express themselves. 5. Stakeholders’ wants are openly investigated in order to determine their interests. 6. Participants transparently share information and how decisions are made. 7. Facts and knowledge claims are revisited to see how they were created.
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 283 8. Focusing on outcomes and interests rather than bargaining on rival solutions. 9. Stakeholders jointly make decisions rather than just having “their say.” This may strike you as a daunting set of conditions, but those trained in the art of conflict mediation and negotiation are quite familiar with most of these prin- ciples and with using them for the benefit of all parties. It’s not surprising that Deetz, the director of peace and conflict studies at his university, finds them useful in the PARC model. Deetz would have managers take the role of mediators rather than persuad- ers. They would coordinate the conflicting interests of all parties affected by corporate decisions. He understands that even those who are committed to open dialogue would feel insecure as they relinquished control. He suggests that a good way for them to start is to “complicate” their perceptions of subordinates and other stakeholders by being around them, talking with them, and learning their hopes, dreams, fears, values, and needs. Managers could take notes on how to do this from Erin Brockovich. That’s how she communicated with people in Hinkley. Once PG&E discovered that contaminated wastewater was leaching into the underground aquifer, Deetz would envision a negotiation that would include more than corporate executives and stockholders. Consumers, employees who came in contact with the water, Hinkley residents developing tumors, and per- haps Erin Brockovich herself would also be at the table. Certainly the discussions would be heated. From Deetz’ perspective, that would be OK. The final decision on how to handle the problem would have to incorporate all of their interests.ETHICAL REFLECTION: WEST’S PROPHETIC PRAGMATISM Cornel West is a pragmatist philosopher who is now a professor of religion at Princeton University. Along with the best-known American pragmatist, John Dewey (see Chapter 18), West regards pragmatism as “a mode of cultural critical action that focuses on the ways and means by which human beings have, do, and can overcome obstacles, dispose predicaments, and settle problematic situ- ations.”28 The moral obstacle West wants to overcome is the institutional oppres- sion of “the disadvantaged, degraded, and dejected” people who struggle on the margins of society.29 They face racism, sexual discrimination, and economic injus- tice. West agrees with the analysis of Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, who deplored the inhuman treatment of workers in Henry Ford’s auto factory.30 Both men said that these evils exist not just because of ignorance or apathy—they are the result of pervasive human sin. West is also sympathetic to a Marxist critique of capitalism,31 but his own brand of pragmatism is deeply rooted in the narratives of the Scriptures: I have dubbed it “prophetic” in that it harks back to the Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets who brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day. The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may.32 For example, Hebrew prophets like Amos demanded social justice for the pow- erless; Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan reminds believers that they are responsible to help those who are hurting, whoever and wherever they are.33
284 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION As a prophetic pragmatist, Cornel West applauds an action-oriented approach to empower rather than exploit the disadvantaged, degraded, and dejected who are excluded from decision-making processes. Deetz’ call for all stakeholders to have an effective say in corporate decisions that affect their lives aligns well with West’s commitments. Yet the specific ethical implications of West’s prophetic prag- matism aren’t always clear-cut. In 1995 he took flak from most whites and many blacks for supporting Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March on Washington. West acknowledged that he faced a tragic moral choice: “After all, I am a radical democrat devoted to a downward redistribution of wealth and a Christian freedom-fighter in the King legacy—which condemns any xenophobia, including patriarchy, homophobia, and anti-semitism.”34 These commitments put him at odds with Farrakhan’s rhetoric. But West said that he and Farrakhan agreed on the importance of highlighting black suffering, and he was galvanized by Dr. Martin Luther King’s example of forming alliances and coalitions across racial, gender, class, and religious lines. And so he marched.CRITIQUE: IS WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY JUST A DREAM? Deetz’ approach to corporate decision making is inherently attractive because it is built on values that many of us in the field of communication share. By reserving a seat at the decision-making table for every class of stakeholders, Deetz affirms the importance of democratic participation, fairness, equality, diversity, and cooperation. Without question, Deetz’ insistence on the constitutive nature of all commu- nication can help us understand consent practices in the workplace. Yet his advo- cacy of stakeholder rights and participatory democracy isn’t necessarily furthered by his constructionist view of communication. In fact, his reform agenda could be hindered. If, contrary to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, there are no self- evident truths on which to stand, everything is in play and it doesn’t make much sense to assume that we have a right to participate in decisions that affect us. Political realism may be another problem. As applied to corporate life, Deetz’ theory is a critique of managerialism. Arizona State University communication professor Robert McPhee offers a somewhat tongue-in-cheek summary: “If we just didn’t find it natural and right and unavoidable to hand power over to managers, everything would be very different and our problems would be solved.”35 Although a caricature, this capsule statement underscores the prob- lematic nature of the stakeholder negotiations that Deetz pictures and the incred- ible difficulty of getting all parties to sit at the table as equals. Deetz admits that a positive alternative to managerialism is difficult to work out in conception and in practice.36 Moving from the dark quadrant of consent to the clear quadrant of participation in Figure 21–1 is a quantum leap. The PARC model moves critical theory to a higher level of conceptual sophistication. As for stakeholder participation in practice, Deetz finds that businesses increasingly recog- nize they must work with others. He cites cases where resources are scarce—river basin governance, mineral extraction, environmental choices, as well as social and economic development. Stakeholders at the table often include governmental agencies, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, special-interest groups, and community members. Deetz reports that “critical theories work to increase equality by surfacing unnecessary and harmful control mechanisms, showing the
CHAPTER 21: CRITICAL THEORY OF COMMUNICATION IN ORGANIZATIONS 285 importance of different forms of knowledge and values, and building interaction processes that make this greater equality meaningful and productive.”37 Moving from the theory to the theorist, Deetz insists that critical scholars should be “filled with care, thought, and good humor.”38 That third quality may surprise you, for like prophets, critical theorists have the reputation of being a rather grim bunch. But Deetz suggests that with good humor we can smile at our inconsistencies, contradictions, and bruised pride. We are to take the plight of the oppressed—not ourselves—seriously. “The righteousness and pretense is gone, we must act without knowing for sure. The grand narratives are dead, but there is meaning and pleasure in the little ones. The pleasure embarrasses us but also gives us energy and a smile at ourselves.”39 To sample a mix of Deetz’ care, thought, and humor, read through his morning exercise printed on the cereal box in Figure 21–2. I find the contents a compelling reason not to dismiss his theory.QUESTIONS TO SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS 1. Deetz contrasts information models that assume language reflects reality with communication models that assume reality emerges out of a relationship among self, others, language, and the world. What other theories already covered fit the communication model? 2. Managers use strategy and consent to maintain control over subordinates. According to Deetz, which practice is more effective? Why? 3. The stakeholder model requires participation, not just involvement. What is the difference between the two practices? 4. To what extent do you agree with the following statement: “Autocracy at work is the price we pay for democracy after hours”? Does it apply equally to work in the classroom?CONVERSATIONS In this eight-minute segment, critical theorist Stan Deetz offers a host of pithy opinions. Here’s a sample. On communication: “The field for a long time argued that meanings were in people. I raise the opposite kind of question: Whose meanings are in people?” On management: “A lot of managers talk about thinking out of the box, but they don’t understand . . . that you do not think out of the box by commanding the box.” On corporate assets: “Their primary assets are not what investors gave them, but what employees gave them. . . . Their primary assets go down the elevator every night.” And there are lots more. Watch and discover your favorites.View this segment online at www.mhhe.com.griffin8 or www.afirstlook.com.A SECOND LOOK Recommended resource: Stanley Deetz, Transforming Communication, Transforming Busi- ness: Building Responsive and Responsible Workplaces, Hampton, Cresskill, NJ, 1995. Critical foundation: Stanley Deetz, Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization: Devel- opments in Communication and the Politics of Everyday Life, State University of New York, Albany, NY, 1992.
286 GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION Critique of communication theory and practice: Stanley Deetz, “Critical Theory,” in Engag- ing Organizational Communication Theory: Multiple Perspectives, S. May and Dennis Mumby (eds.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2004, pp. 85–111. Overview of organizational communication: Stanley Deetz, “Conceptual Foundations,” in The New Handbook of Organizational Communication, 2nd ed., Fred Jablin and Linda Put- nam (eds.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2000, pp. 3–46. Review of critical approach to organizational communication: George Cheney et al., “Democracy, Participation, and Communication at Work: A Multidisciplinary Review,” in Communication Yearbook 21, Michael Roloff (ed.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1998, pp. 35–91. Organizational politics: “Interests, Conflict, and Power: Organizations as Political Sys- tems,” Gareth Morgan, Images of Organizations, 2nd ed., Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1997, pp. 153–213. Ethical foundations of stakeholder theory: Tanni Hass and Stanley Deetz, “Between the Gen- eralized and the Concrete Other,” in Rethinking Organizational & Managerial Communication from Feminist Perspectives, Patrice M. Buzzanell (ed.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2000, pp. 24–46. International Communication Association 1997 presidential address: Stanley Deetz, “Com- munication in the Age of Negotiation,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 47, No. 4, 1997, pp. 118–135. PARC model overview: Stanley Deetz, “The Rise of Stakeholder Governance Models and the Redesign of Communication Necessary for Them,” in Revista Organicom 7: A Comunicação na Gestão para Sustentabilidade das Organizações, M. Kunsch (ed.), Difusão, São Paulo, Brazil, 2009, p. 2. Extensive treatment of PARC model: Stanley Deetz and G. Radford, Communication The- ory at the Crossroads: Theorizing for Globalization, Pluralism and Collaborative Needs, Wiley- Blackford, Oxford, in press. PARC model vis-à-vis Habermas’ theory of communicative action: Stanley Deetz, “Politi- cally Attentive Relational Constructionism (PARC) and Making a Difference in a Plural- istic, Independent World,” in Distinctive Qualities in Communication Research, Donal Carbaugh and Patrice M. Buzzanell (eds.), Routledge, New York, 2010, pp. 32–51. Review and critique: Branislav Kovaˇ c, “The Democracy and Organizational Com- ci´ munication Theories of Deetz, Mumby, and Associates,” in Watershed Research Traditions in Communication Theory, Donald Cushman and Branislav Kovaˇ i´ (eds.), State University cc of New York, Albany, NY, 1995, pp. 211–238. To access titles and cue points of scenes from other feature films that illustrate managerial control, click on Suggested Movie Clips under Theory Resources at www.afirstlook.com.