The Social Psychology of Organizing by Karl Weick

Weick, Karl (1969). The Social Psychology of Organizing. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
by Emily Ball Cicchini

This deceptively thin volume with a modern orange and ripped paper blue cover design represents Weick’s original treatise on the reform of the study of organizing.  Written partly in response to a perceived crisis in social psychology, which at the time was growing so fast, with so many different areas of inquiry, that it was “increasingly difficult for anyone to be a generalist” in the field (Kiesler, Charles A, Foreword).  The volume is part of a series meant to replace a general introductory social psychology textbook by focusing on topics.  Kiesler announces that Weick’s contribution is the presentation of a “fresh” theory, which he does achieve by the end of the book with much clarity and novelty.

Weick starts by summarizing theories of the period about how organizations are “established, maintained, and dismantled.”  He assumes a backdrop of traditional management practices, and critiques both hierarchical structure and the weaknesses of democratic-style “majority rule,” in which subsets of majorities, splitting factions in percentages of 49:51 down to 33:66 eventually cut to a majority of one, what we typically think of the leader, the determiner of the final word, or the “final peak.”   He illustrates these ideas both with a diagram and a “grook,”  a short aphoristic poem invented by Piet Hein, a Danish inventor and poet who wrote 20 books of these truisms, which, incidentally, are now all out of print.  (, 6/18/2012).  The final image of the poem reiterates the inherent irony of this type of organizing:  those at the “top” are now in the minority, so how can they still represent the majority?

To further explore the question of “what does organization look like?” he references German sociologist Georg Simmel, generally adopting his basic assumptions:

1)    Groups vacillate less than individuals
2)    Groups form around primitive issues
3)    Groups are both similar and dissimilar
4)    Groups are predominately emotional

These set the tone for Weick’s further discussion, which goes on a somewhat winding path.  The next chapter goes into details about the contemporary problems of organization theory, including a very passionate argument against the term  “organizational behavior,” (it’s both redundant and non-sensical, because organizing is behavior, and there is no static “organization” thatis fixed in time to behave, only reflections of how organizations behaved the past). He also details the still relevant problems of internal/external in the concept of organizing:  is the environment internal or external?  He answer both; and even that the organization creates it own environment;  and partial inclusion, that organizations existing concurrently;  some actors are only partially included, and included elsewhere, and that these “link pins” give strength to all.  Organization theory, like society itself, seems to have a number of “boundary problems,” to borrow a psychological term.  While arguing against a focus on psychological explanations (which he sees as interpretive and retroactive), he calls for more empirical study of organizing based on observation.  He cautions against rational linear planning as a contributor to inertia, and that inertia is a cause of organizational decay.  Organizations must constantly be made and remade to survive.

In the third chapter, he cuts to the chase to propose his revised concept of organization:

1)    Processes involved in organizing must continuously be re-accomplished
2)    Control is a prominent process within organizations, but it is accomplished by relationships (and not individual people)
3)    Goal consensus is not a precondition of order and regularity
4)    Triads are the basic unit of analysis in organizational theory (people and objects, exponential)
5)    Attentional processes are a crucial determinant of human organizing
6)    Organizations continue to exist only to the degree that they are able to maintain a balance between flexibility and stability
7)    Organizing is directed towards removing equivocality from the informational environment.

And thus, the underlying sub-goal of organizing is to remove doubt, remove ambiguity, or reduce the number of meanings that are able to be applied to in any given situation.  It’s a filter on incoming messages, that’s applied through individual and triad choices.

Which gets us to his further use of both social psychological and evolutionary biological frameworks to describe the elements and processes of organizing. Some key aspects of these chapters include an emphasis on observable behavior, not individual agency or choice (but not a collective, unified “organizational behavior”), collective structure (a concept introduced by Floyd Henry Allport), and enacted environment.  From Allport and others, Weick derives the concept of “Interlocked Behaviors,” that relationships within a group form a series of reciprocal behavioral loops, and that these are the mechanisms that create organizations.  The enacted environment is further development of the organization activity of creating meaning;  that meaning is created from experience lived in the past, and that the cause and effect of actions are really knowable only after completion, in retrospect.

This causes obvious problems for those in organizations who desire to control and predict outcomes in advance.  To this, Weick offers the notion of acts of attention and reproduction, and the separation of uninterrupted flow of experience (duration) into segments.  Ironically, most plans (which he seems to acknowledge will happen, even if they are not particularly effective in terms of control) are in the future perfect tense:   future plans are described from the past point of view… what would success look like?  He makes a potentially bleak statement to conclude this abstract train of thought, that “the meaning of anything is the way it is attended to, and nothing else.” (p 65)

To Weick’s credit, he moves quickly between theory and applied organizational practice throughout the book.  Even though he delves into rather deep epistemological reflection, he peppers the book with graphs, lists, and case studies:

*    majority rule poem and graph pages pp 3-4
*    Simmel’s consequences  p 11-15
*    revised concept pp 36-40 (his original concepts)
*    collective structure on the laboratory p 48 (the fate control/behavior control experiments)
*    amendments to evolutionary theory p 59-63
*    cycles of assembly into selection process p 74

From this practical mindset, he applies his concept of interlocked cycles of behavior and assembly rules to explore direct and inverse power relationships. He makes a series of generalizations:

*    The more equivocality of information, less rules
*    The less equivocality of information, more rules
*    The more cycles of behavior applied, the more equivocation removed.

This is summarized in another chart of a sequence of a process (p 77).  This surprising formula offers a graphic representation of a non-linear workflow, complete with cyclical and interdependent parts.  Weick is quick to point out that specific rules and cycles are particular to organizations, but that he believes that this model might be generalizable to all observable organizing behavior.

Weick goes on to show how this model works to reduce equivocality, and how individual processes themselves, depending on different variables, can be equivocal or unequivocal.  On page 87, he presents another refinement of the model, whereby Ecological Change (read as the introduction of new information or messages) forces a sequence of Enactment, Selection, and Retention of processes, which cycle back in positive or negative feedback loops to the first two elements of set.

Like a skilled lawyer making his closing argument, Weick presents his big model, “The Organizing Model,” on p 93.  It further factored by breaking out the processes of Enactment, Selection, and Retention into their component processes of assembly rule creation, cycle selection, and the lowering of equivocality.   It is rather like an elegant quadratic equation, where the desired result is an equality or balance that equals stability, or maintenance.  In his equation, an odd number of negative or control relationships in an organized system are ideal, because an even number, two negatives create a positive, and too much positive would lead to uncontrolled expansion, perhaps an explosion.  An odd number of inverse relationships helps keep the boat afloat.  And in Weick’s model, the ultimate victory for the organization is to survive.

Since Weick starts with the equivocality of the concept of “majority rule,” its interesting to think of how democratic process might be explored through his model, with the enactment functions served by the legislative branch, the selection by the executive, and the retention by the judicial branch.  Weick seems to dismiss size as a limiting factor for his model, but it is hard to imagine being able to collect enough confirmable observable behavior about the democratic process to be able to determine if democracy, at least in this country, is on the path to survival or destruction. We just don’t have that level of transparency as a general rule.  But wouldn’t that be an interesting path to pursue?

This reader wonders if sometimes, it’s better for organizations to dissolve in order for new, more functional ones to be created, but Weick does not address this in this volume.  He does however admit that routine items are difficult to revise, which implies problems in organizations can become too static and that this can be a problem for adaptation.  His point is well taken however that “in order to maintain the balance between stability and flexibility needed for system survival, he (an actor) must treat retained content as both equivocal an unequivocal.” (p 80)  That’s a wonderful rule of thumb for a manager dealing with processes in a large organization.  Also, that it is the relationships between processes that are the controls of the system, not the rules and policies or hierarchical authority that are put in place. (p 37, 81).

In all, it’s a very dense, engaging, and convincing volume, that clearly created lots of new energy for the study of organizing.  It will be interesting to see how Weick’s ideas evolve in the more widely referenced 1974 edition, and if the concurrent discovery of fractal geometry, with its introduction of equations built on the square root of negative one, the imaginary number, might be pulled into this model.  Fractals are so present in nature, that one would think that the idea of the square root of a negative creating spiral, re-iterating, self-organizing order would appeal to organizational theorists.  I look forward to having read it!