Psychological Theories Tied to Attitudes Within Organizations

The selection we read from Nickel and Dimed sparked an interesting idea in reference to one of my annotated bibliography concepts we received back in class. One of my concepts related to a point that Scott and Davis made in chapter 2 about the influence an organization can have over an individual. They discuss how formalized organizations seem to legitimize certain behaviors, and that “subjects placed in an ambiguous situation were much more likely to accept influence from another when that person was defined as holding a specified organizational position” (Scott and Davis, pg. 39). I have taken a few psychology courses, and this idea is one that psychologists seem to unanimously support. According to social scientists who study this phenomenon, it explains the behavior of individuals in organizations ranging from a group of high school students to members of the KKK. The shock experiment carried out by Stanley Milgram at Yale University is one example of a study that supports this concept. (I know I have yet to make a connection to the Nickel and Dimed reading…I’m getting there.)
A very real life, recent example of this occurred at a little company I interned for this summer…Merrill Lynch. On one hand it was unfortunate to be there during such a tumultuous time, but it was also fascinating to witness first hand the way this psychological phenomenon led to the downfall of a major organization. People became so complacent to hide behind the name of a big company that no one ever bothered to stop and ask “Wait…should we really be supporting the lending of money to people who have showed no evidence that they can EVER pay it back?” High level executives turned a blind eye to corruption, greed, and deceit; all because they felt their actions were protected and legitimized by the comfort of the organization.
To me, it is fascinating to think about how Walmart can be applied to this phenomenon. The way Barbara openly describes the menial, tedious tasks that she finds herself thrown into at Walmart would seem to be a rebellion against the phenomenon. Her mere acknowledgement that the organization she was a part of was trivial to her in some way suggests that we do not always feel legitimized by the presence of authority and organization. However, she did complete the tasks, so does that shoot down my theory of disproval? What are the requirements for behavior that supports what Scott and Davis were referring to: actual beliefs, just the actions, or a combination of both? I make this case with the recognition that Barbara is not representative of all Walmart employees, but that her feelings towards her tasks at her job can absolutely be applied elsewhere.
Although Barbara’s reaction to her tasks at Walmart do reflect some sort of rebellion against authority, they do not do so in a productive, inspirational way. As young adults entering the workforce, we are constantly encouraged to challenge (respectfully and constructively) authority in hopes of bettering the organization with which we become a part. Had she ever made one recommendation for how they might make Walmart a better or more “legitimized” place to work, I would applaud her hesitation to accept the trivial tasks. All she did, however, was criticize the way things were done and indirectly insult essentially everything about the environment of the organization. It is an entertaining read, for sure, but it lacks the inspiration that one might hope to find in a reading that was so centered on what was wrong with an organization.

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4 Responses

  1. Just a few pointers…

    1) Be sure to mark long posts with the category “Blog.”
    2) Add tags to describe what you wrote.
    3) Can you change your wordpress user name to your first name so we have a fighting chance to remember who you are?

  2. You choose a really interesting example with Merrill Lynch. I think that what happened with Merrill Lynch teaches a valuable lesson about how organizations influence people, and how people hide behind them. I do believe that a lot of the troubles in our current economy have to do with people believing these big organizations know what’s best and also being afraid to stand up to them. Our country is definitely learning a valuable lesson from what is going on now on Wall Street. Though, sometimes it seems like we need a big catastrophic event like this current economic crisis to turn things around. It does not seem like to many executives or employees in these Wall Street organizations were providing inspirational suggestions. Or if they were, how many of these suggestions did organizations take into consideration? Maybe the government needs to create new ways for employees to have their voices heard, so they do not fear losing their jobs and what not.

  3. I think the way you set up the questions about what actually legitimizes behavior are very insightful. The work of a future researcher perhaps?

    And the Merril Lynch story is fascinating. Can you be more specific about how people discussed the role of loans and CDOs? Was there open discussion about mistakes?

    You have a partial answer to why Ehrenreich did not accept the positional authority of her supervisors at Wal-Mart. She was always an outsider and knew she was leaving.

    Wal-Mart has been notoriously resistant to any change in employment practices. We can look into it more, but one small example is shutting down whole stores rather than let the butcher department unionize.

  4. To answer your question about Merrill, I was actually at an advantage because my dad used to work there, so he would give me insight at the dinner table that I probably wouldn’t have gotten from the employees during my internship. But there definitely was an open awareness that a lot of people turned a blind eye to what they knew was corrupt. Part of my summer was spent on the mortgage-backed securities desk (great atmosphere, lemme tell ya….) and one of the guys basically admitted to me that they purposely just didn’t ask questions about what they were being told to sell simply because they wanted to keep their jobs. They know that they are technically to blame for what went down, but they’re salesmen, and salesmen sell what their boss tells them to sell. They were all basically waiting around to hear about whether or not they were getting fired, so their bitter attitudes and willingness to talk smack about the upper level management was a good way for me to get some insight into how much greed was involved in the whole issue.

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