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MPA 8002
Organization Theory

Thinking Like Successful Managers and Leaders

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The need for cognitive complexity...

As Bolman and Deal (1997) and Morgan (1986) suggest, there are many ways for people to view organizations. Each view can be likened to a landscape or portrait, depicting the organization from a particular vantage or perspective and highlighting some elements while overlooking or hiding others. Like the people who populate them, organizations also have many strengths and weaknesses which can only be revealed in their fullness by using multiple perspectives to assess and evaluate the organization in its entirety.

Bearing this in mind, it is easy to understand how utilizing a unitary perspective to assess and evaluate an organization constrains the depth to which once can understand the organization. If managers and leaders are to scratch beneath the surface and delve into the substance of their organizations, what is needed is "cognitive complexity" which can be defined as "the intellectual ability of a manager or leader to envision the organization from multiple and competing perspectives so as to develop a depth of organizational understanding that is at least equal to the factors impacting its functioning."

Inculcating cognitive complexity...

To understand the complex nature of contemporary organizations, organization theorists suggest that managers and leaders develop cognitive skills that support the art of "reading" organizational realities. In graduate programs, assisting students to "read" their organizations inculcates the cognitive complexity students will need when they will be managing and leading organizations, if they are not already.

One way to inculcate cognitive complexity is for students enrolled in graduate management or leadership programs to examine their organization's functioning from multiple perspectives.

For example, Bolman and Deal (1997) suggest that managers and leaders need to develop more complex cognitive skills, arguing that they must develop multiple perspectives (what the authors call "frames") to identify and interpret their organizational reality accurately. Likewise, from a perspective steeped in linguistics, Morgan (1986) presents eight predominant metaphors humans use to describe organizations. He demonstrates how each metaphor provides a way of seeing and thinking about organizations that exerts a formative influence upon how humans not only understand but also enact behaviors in organizations. In addition, because metaphors imply modes for perceiving, thinking, and acting, Morgan argues that the metaphors managers and leaders use must be examined for what they illuminate as much as for what they hide. Then, there are social scientists who, for the most part of the 20th century, have worked to develop theoretical concepts and constructs to explain and predict behavior in organizations. Social psychologists, political scientists and organizational theorists have advocated a wide variety of perspectives to enhance how people might examine organizations in an effort to understand what is really transpiring within them as well as to manage and lead them more efficaciously.

All of these theorists provide ways for graduate students to expand their focus beyond merely acquiring the skills and techniques associated with best practice and toward developing the cognitive complexity they will need if one day, as managers or leaders, they will probe into the underlying issues embedded in (and sometimes masked by) organizational problems and resolve these issues (McWhinney, 1992).

The four-frame approach to analyzing organizations (Bolman & Deal, 1997), provides one methodology for inculcating cognitive complexity in students.

Obviously, students will soon discover that some organizational problems stem from poor management. As Bolman and Deal (1997) note with regard to the structural frame, change alters the clarity and stability of roles and relationships, creating confusion and chaos. This requires managers and leaders to direct their attention to realigning and renegotiating formal patterns and policies. Hence, students study how to plan, organize, staff, direct, coordinate, report, and budget, all with the ostensible goal of improving the work process in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness.

Similarly, students will find that another source of frequently recurring organizational problems is poor technology. That is, while the work process and the people present in the workplace might be well-integrated, the technology used might be deficient or, at least, inefficient or unresponsive to the demands of the organization’s environment or the workplace itself. To deal with these and other problems, graduate programs in management and leadership expose students to new technologies that offer the promise of improving the organization’s responsiveness to its environment and workplace.

However, dealing with these and other structural problems requires more than simply implementing structural solutions. Before using a tool, managers and leaders must ask: What is(are) the central problem(s) confronting the organization? What is(are) the relevant fact(s) related to this(these) problem(s)? What relevant structural theories respond to these matters? Answers to these questions provide structural directions for solving problems, for example, as managers and leaders consider:

  • developing strategies to set objectives and to coordinate resources;

  • realigning roles and responsibilities to fit tasks and environment;

  • distributing rewards or penalties to control performance;

  • using authority to resolve conflict;

  • keeping the organization headed in the right direction; and,

  • transmitting facts and information.

Analyzing their workplace through the lens provided by the structural frame assists graduate students to develop a more complicated understanding about organizational functioning.

And yet, students also know that many organizational problems stem not simply from the structural problems associated with adaptation and integration but perhaps more oftentimes from poor human relations. Because change causes people to feel incompetent, needy, and powerless, providing training for personnel to develop new skills, creating opportunities for increased and meaningful involvement, and providing psychological support are essential (Bolman & Deal, 1997). Consequently, students enrolled in graduate programs learn an array of psychological and sociological tools promising to help managers and leaders improve interpersonal relations among people in the workplace.

But, again, what tool ought to be used? To deal with this more complex question, managers and leaders inquire further: What is(are) the central problem(s) confronting the organization? What is(are) the relevant fact(s) related to this(these) problem(s)? What relevant human resource theories respond to these matters? Not only do these questions make the initial question more complex and perhaps render an initial diagnosis invalid, responses to these questions provide additional directions for solving organizational problems, for example, as managers and leaders consider:

  • promoting participation;

  • producing commitment;

  • enhancing intrinsic motivation;

  • maintaining a balance between human needs and formal roles;

  • developing a process for helping individuals grow and improve;

  • fostering relationships that enable individuals to confront conflict;

  • keeping people involved and communication open; and,

  • exchanging information, needs, and feelings.

Again, even if each of these solutions were to prove efficacious for students as they examine organizational functioning, there are many other organizational problems that stem neither from structure nor human resources deficiencies. Instead, organizational politics is the culprit of organizational dysfunction. Thus, graduate programs expose students to an array of tools for confronting and dealing organizational politics.

And yet, as Bolman and Deal (1997) note, because organizational change generates conflict, it also creates winners and losers. Furthermore, the desire to avoid or smooth over these divisive issues drives organizational conflict underground. Thus, managing change effectively becomes an increasingly complex endeavor, one requiring managers and leaders to create arenas wherein the issues embedded in organizational problems can be negotiated. Managers and leaders must inquire: What is(are) the central problem(s) confronting the organization? What is(are) the relevant fact(s) related to this(these) problem(s)? What relevant political theories respond to these matters? These questions make analyzing organizational problems an intricately complex endeavor; but, at the same time, responses to these questions provide additional directions as managers and leaders consider:

  • defining arenas to air conflicts and realign power, to make interests known, to influence and/or manipulate others, or to build power through bargaining, coercing, or manipulating others;

  • using the decision-making process to exercise or accrue power; and,

  • restructuring the organization to redistribute power and to form new coalitions.

Analyzing the workplace through the lens provided by the political frame further complicates one's understanding about organizational functioning and makes problem solving an eminently more complex endeavor than any unitary view would suggest.

Lastly, many organizational problems stem from the need people have to find meaning and purpose in their work. Students in graduate programs―and, it might be added, managers/leaders in organizations―normally do not think about these symbolic and cultural matters not only because they are more abstract and removed from the practicalities of organizational life but also because the thoughts engendered can prove to be rather depressing. But, the fact is, people do experience meaninglessness in their work and do feel depressed, especially as they wonder why work seems to be nothing more than drudgery. Is the workplace to be a "sweatshop" where people engage in stultifying routine activities that are utterly disconnected from their lives outside the workplace? Or, is it possible that work can express one's purpose in life, transforming routine human activity into craftsmanship by which one makes a contribution to an enterprise larger and more enduring than oneself (Arendt, 1998)?

To deal with these more substantive questions, managers and leaders need to be conversant with the nature of symbols and culture. For example, organizational change creates a loss of meaning and purpose as people have formed attachments to symbols and symbolic activity. When these attachments are severed by change, people experience difficulty in letting go of their "teddy bears" (Winnicott, 1958, pp. 229-242) and their existential wounds require healing (Bolman & Deal, 1997). Thus, in order to deal with these profound matters, managers and leaders must also inquire: What is(are) the central problem(s) confronting the organization? What is(are) the relevant fact(s) related to this(these) problem(s)? What relevant symbolic and cultural theories respond to these matters? The areas raised by these questions provide additional directions for dealing with organizational dysfunction as managers and leaders consider:

  • devising rituals that involve individuals and groups to signify responsibility, to produce symbols, to negotiate meanings, and to provide comfort and support until decision happens;

  • maintaining an image of accountability and responsiveness while negotiating a new social order; and,

  • using conflict, symbols, and celebrations to negotiate meaning, define symbols, to share values, as well as to celebrate and transform the culture.

As graduate students learn to puzzle through the intricacies of organizational functioning unearthed by asking questions about meaning and purpose as it is or is not experienced in their organization, the structural, human relations, and political solutions seem somewhat narrow, if not simplistic because solving organizational dysfunctions requires utilizing symbols that convey meaning and purpose to people in organizations.

In light of these multiple perspectives, if graduate students are to learn "to think as leaders and managers think" it is necessary that graduate students inculcate within themselves "cognitive complexity," that is, to look at organizational phenomena as they really are―complex, deceptive, surprising, and ambiguous (Bolman & Deal, 1997) from different perspectives, frames, and metaphors. Not only does this cognitive activity enable graduate students to recognize that "what one sees" is not necessarily "what is transpiring." Learning to probe more deeply into the facts of organizational functioning and to allow the data to "take on a life of their own," graduate students inculcate cognitive complexity as they develop richer, more substantive insights into organizational functioning.

It will be as students learn to negotiate this very messy and oftentimes irrational organizational terrain laden with structural, human resources, political, and symbolic/cultural landmines that graduate students will develop increasingly sophisticated powers of cognitive complexity.  Building upon this capacity, graduate students will then be capable of formulating a proposal for organizational change. Only this product of one's sensitivity, intellectual effort, and creativity offers realistic hope that one's organizational change plan will transform organizational functioning.

The shift from "act" to "thought"...


As these reflections suggest, managing and leading organizations is not simply the application of the skills and techniques associated with best practice to actual practice episodes. In addition, and perhaps more substantively, managing and leading organizations is a complex cognitive endeavor. Possessing the skills and techniques adequate for addressing intrusive, bothersome, and pesky organizational problems is one matter, and an important one indeed! But, knowing the right tool to use, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, and to the right person is a much more complex, intricate, and ethical endeavor, as Aristotle (1958) noted in his Nicomachean Ethics

At issue is not knowing which body of theory or methodology will best assist managers and leaders to understand their organizations. Rather, the substantive issue for students enrolled graduate management and leadership programs involves developing their ability to complicate their understanding of organizational functioning. Experimenting with multiple perspectives, frames, and metaphors inculcates in graduate students "cognitive complexity," the ability to formulate alternative conceptions about what to do in an organization and why. This is not easy work. But, then, why do so many people believe management and leadership should be?

The goal of inculcating cognitive complexity in graduate students is purposeful. The desired outcome is to liberate those who will be managers and leaders of organizations from psychic prisons, those narrow, frustrating, self-made intellectual jail cells where individuals cling to a unitary vantage to understand organizational reality by simplifying it to fit neatly with one's worldview (Morgan, 1986). These managers and leaders see only what they know. Freed from these self-chosen psychic prisons of unitary perspectives and diagnoses through cognitive complexity, managers and leaders can become more imaginative and creative as they approach their responsibilities because these women and men understand organizational functioning. That is, these managers and leaders know what they see.  They are able to answer the question posed by M.C. Escher's drawing: Are the stairways moving upwards or downwards?


Ultimately, these women and men―armed with cognitive complexity and the skills and techniques associated with best practice―will manage and lead their organizations to achieve their goals by uniting people, technology, and process in a more efficient and effective human way.


Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Aristotle. (1958). The Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1997). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McWhinney, W. (1992). Paths of change: Strategic choices for organizations and society. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. A. (1991). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Simon, Y. R. (1951/1993). Philosophy of democratic government. Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Winnicott, D. W.  (1958).  Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.  In Collected papers (pp. 229-242).  London: Tavistock.