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Shadow Organizations

The Forms of Expectation Formation in Hyperformalized Organizations

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 18. April 2024

Every analysis of an organization—and, indeed, every analysis of groups of friends, small families or protest movements—starts with an examination of the way in which expectations are formed. This focus on the formation of expectations may be surprising, but this is the only way to understand how social structures stabilize in the first place. Only through expectations do we know what behavior a counterpart is likely to display and what behavior, on the other hand, the counterpart expects from oneself.  

The emergence of expectations in relations can proceed largely without presuppositions. It is “a primitive technique pure and simple” (according to ​Luhmann 1995, 323​). One can test whether or not the need for a good conversation, for a close friendship, or for a sexual relationship is shared. Through the fulfillment or disappointment of initially spontaneously formed expectations, one then gradually develops certainty of expectation. At some point, one knows that one cannot expect good conversation when a colleague is stressed, that one should not articulate the demand for a close friendship to complete strangers, and that the initiation of sexual relations is based on the correct interpretation of the other person’s signals.  

Of course, one can always try to figure out for oneself which spontaneously formed expectations will stand the test of time and which will be disappointed. But at some point in childhood, we discover that there are expectations in society that we can assume are more socially supported than others (see ​Luhmann 1995, 324​). You learn that biking naked around town is not tolerated, but that nudity in your own home is normally accepted.1 These expectations become more and more refined until we understand that the right to nudity in one’s own four walls is restricted when visitors are present, or that with nudist beaches there are public places where nudity is not only accepted but even expected, even though strict norms still apply as to where one is allowed to look.2 

When we examine organizations, different forms of expectation formation come to mind (see ​Luhmann 1985, 64​; ​Luhmann 1995, 368​). In an organization, expectation formation takes place through values and programs as well as through roles and people, and we have to describe the interplay of these forms of expectation in order to understand an organization in detail. If we were to view organizations only as a value-based entity, only as a collection of super-personal programs, only as a set of role-bearers, or only as an accumulation of staff or people, we would merely get a highly distorted picture.  

Values represent the most abstract form of expectation formation in organizations. They are ideas of what is desired that are reflected in the choice between alternatives for action but do not provide clear criteria for right and wrong behavior ​(Friedrichs 1968, 113)​. Popular values in organizations are sustainability, diversity, innovativeness, efficiency, appreciation or transparency. They are so abstract that they are well suited for the front page and can easily be written into the mission statement of almost any organization, but they do not specify what concretely follows from them.  

In contrast to values, programs in organizations form clear criteria for right or wrong decisions (see ​Luhmann 2018, 210ff.​). The sales goals in a company, the procedure for issuing a passport by an administration, or the application for travel reimbursement in universities are specified so precisely that a distinction can be made between correct and incorrect behavior. Working from programs, an organizational member can very accurately guess whether a law is being broken, a formal rule of the organization is being violated, or an informal norm is being violated, even when taking into account all the available room for interpretation.  

While programs function independently of people, roles in organizations can only be exercised by specific people. A role is understood as a bundle of expectations that are attached to the behavior of the bearers of positions. Thus, it is a matter of expectations that “a person can perform,” “yet that are not fixed to specific people,” but are rather “exercised by different, possibly changing role bearers” ​(Luhmann 1985, 67f.)​. We expect a policeman—at least in a democracy—to rush to our support when we are threatened by a criminal. Which exact policeman does not matter for the formation of expectations. In the case of roles, the expectation is not linked to a specific person, but rather to a bundle of expectations summarized in a role.  

The formation of expectations about people can be distinguished from the stabilization of behavioral expectations about roles. We know intuitively that what we have experienced with one person cannot easily be transferred to experiences with another individual. In order to develop expectation stability about people, we need to have experienced them in a series of situations in which they could present themselves with all of their particularities. Naturally, expectation stabilization via knowledge of persons plays an important role, especially in romantic couples, small families, and friendship groups. But it also works in organizations. One quickly recognizes that people in the same position behave quite differently, and the assessment of different job holders’ personalities enables us to know more precisely what to expect. 

Different forms of expectation formation are also found in holacratic organizations. No holacratic organization does away with the usual commitments to values such as participation, sustainability, and mindfulness (see ​Robertson 2015a, 31ff.​). The constitution, which must be signed by all holacratic organizations, is a collection of programs used to determine right and wrong actions within holacracy. Roles are identified in this constitution as a central element of holacratic organizations and play an important role in the form of comprehensive job descriptions for each individual member of the organization. But with all the focus on roles, it is of course impossible to prevent the formation of expectations about people, even in holacratic organizations.  

But in holacracy, there is a clear focus on expectation formation. If we were to describe the holacratic concept in the most succinct form imaginable, it is this: the dream that programs cast in a rigid constitution will make it possible to achieve behavioral expectations in organizations, to the greatest extent possible, through precisely defined role expectations. This aspiration has been dreamed again and again in organizations for over a hundred years, but holacracy pursues it in an almost purely idealized form. 

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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