The Power of Language in Organizational Governance


Guest Blog by: Ramona A. Houmanfar, Ph.D.

Professor and Director of Behavior Analysis Program, University of Nevada, Reno

Language plays a fundamental role in human behavior, especially in organizations which use rules to govern activities. As noted in organizational literature, the purpose of communication is often to guide employee behavior, both individually and collectively, to be more efficient and productive. This sort of communication is generally in the form of rules that the organization’s leaders assume will have an impact on employee behavior. We can define a rule as a contingency specifying stimulus that details the relation between an antecedent, response, and consequence. This definition, however, does not explain why some rules are effective and why some are not in terms of their influence on a listener’s behavior.

The functional account of rule governance suggests that rules are understood by way of the frames they imply and their influence on derived relational responding (meaning a response to a stimulus is based on its relation to other stimuli). For example, consider a rule that may be communicated at a hospital: “The nurse who receives the highest percentage of patients’ positive comments related to discharge process this month will be granted the use of the convenient parking spot in front of the hospital.” According to this perspective, the rule relies on frames of coordination (sameness) between the word “positive comments” and the behaviors associated with discharging process. The rule also relies on an if-then frame of relation between the process of “discharging a patient” and the potential outcome of “convenient parking spot.”  The behaviors associated with the discharge process undergo a transformation of function due to the relation of “highest number of patients’ positive comments” and “convenient parking spot” and is likely to be more highly reinforced. During the course of the month, a nurse might evaluate her behaviors throughout each patient’s discharge process by placing verbal statements about them in frames of comparison with other nurses: “Mary ended up with 25% more positive feedback than I did.” Statements like these may lead to further relational responding that may result in other generated rules such as: “It is easier to connect with kids. So, I should work on being assigned to the pediatric unit so that I can increase my overall rating.”

Environmental Ambiguity

Utilizing effective rules in order to reduce environmental ambiguity can be a vital practice on the part of leadership and management, but the design of rules is not a simple process of just describing contingencies. In many cases, the source of rule may have quite a different history and perspective from those of the rule followers, and this discrepancy may explain the often-seen mismatch between the rule author’s objective and the rule followers’ understanding. As has been discussed conceptually and demonstrated experimentally, no rule and/or implicit rather than explicit, and inaccurate rather than accurate rules, generate environmental ambiguity for the rule followers. Environmental ambiguity can occasion problem-solving behavior, which in turn can lead to reduced performance and the listener-generation of inaccurate organizational rules. Conversely, explicit and accurate rules minimize environmental ambiguity, and can produce greater and longer lasting levels of employee performance.

Functional Categories of Rules

We can also define rules according to their functional category. A ply is a rule that specifies a consequence that will be delivered by another person or people (i.e., the consequence is socially mediated). For example, an employee is told that the shift manager disapproves of the medical team’s use of cell phones during hospital shifts. Alternatively, a track is a rule that specifies a consequence that occurs naturally, as part of the interaction with the environment. For example, an employee is told that use of cell phone can promote distraction and result in medical errors. Both kinds of rules can be effective, however, a ply is less likely to be effective when the social context is absent, suggesting a diminished likelihood of contacting the social consequence. A track, on the other hand, retains its effectiveness regardless of the presence or absence of a social context.

Communication serves to alter the function of stimuli in the workplace, which in turn impacts employee behavior. Rules or statements that change the reinforcing or punishing effectiveness of consequences have been called augmentals. Formative augmentals establish a previously neutral stimulus as a reinforcer or punisher. For example, “If we keep patients’ positive feedback over 80% for the month, employees will receive a shared bonus,” will probably result in medical team seeking records on patients’ feedback, possibly a previously neutral stimulus, and attempting to achieve the stated goal. Motivative augmentals, on the other hand, influence the effectiveness of stimuli by altering a consequential function. For example, “Patient’s satisfaction is the backbone of our hospital reputation. If we don’t promote medical team-patient rapport, we will miss our accreditation.” This statement alters a verbal stimulus (patient’s satisfaction) that already functioned as a reinforcer for medical teams by increasing its reinforcing effectiveness.

In short, a relational understanding of the verbal products that are communicated through organizational networks can enhance our ability to craft these verbal products so as to render them more suitable to the needs of specific organizations, departments, and teams. Providing employees with simple, accurate rules that come from a reliable source can help to improve the effectiveness of their behavior while reducing the possibility of time wasted on creating self-rules that may turn out to be inaccurate.

Dr. Ramona Houmanfar is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Behavior Analysis Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has published over sixty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and delivered more than 100 presentations at various conferences in a variety of topics including but not limited to: leadership in organizations, rule governance, communication networks, and instructional design. Her third co-edited book titled “Leadership & Cultural Change: Managing Future Well-Being” was recently published by Taylor & Francis Group.