This article is about the observed workplace and communication dynamics at an American pharmaceutical research company. To protect the identity of the employees, the company is not named and only first names are used, in some instances pseudonyms.
It’s 1998, two years before the start of a new century. William Jefferson Clinton is mid-way through his second term as the President of the United States while in the midst of a scandal involving his sexual relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Famine is decimating hundreds and thousands of people in South Sudan. Legendary singer Frank Sinatra, feminist activist Bella Abzug, American conservative and politician Barry Goldwater, famed film director Akira Kurosawa, American assassin James Earl Ray and Olympic track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner have died. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Viagra, the first oral medication for the treatment of male impotence. Celine Dion, Green Day, Lauryn Hill, Law & Order, Teletubbies, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and the ‘Titanic’ were dominating the American entertainment and pop culture scene. James Byrd, Jr. an African-American, was killed in Jasper, Texas by white supremacists who dragged him to death behind a pick-up truck. Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten, tortured and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. The Euro (single monetary unit/currency for most of Europe) made its entrance. France won the World Cup. The Winter Olympics were held in Nagano, Japan. The search engine, Google was founded.
Also in 1998 and of little seismic note, was a mid-size research company located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, attempting to find its business-footing again.
CULTURAL SCENE/WORKPLACE OBSERVATION
The cultural scene (workplace observation) is a pharmaceutical research company whose purpose is to help clients conduct pharmaceutical research studies on new and generic versions of drugs through the recruitment of study participants. Through this research, the company analyzes and reports on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the client’s “new” drug(s). The company has been in business since 1972 and has gone through major staffing changes since the mid-1990s. This company was a major player in the national pharmaceutical research industry until 1995, when the FDA fined the company for minor paperwork violations (e.g., sloppy filing and inconsistent “paperwork” procedures). This violation, nevertheless, tagged the company with the reputation of data falsification regarding pharmaceutical research, resulting in the company’s economic free-fall. Within three months of the FDA fine, the company laid off hundreds of employees and reduced many others from full-time to part-time staff. Entire divisions such as the laboratories and marketing departments were either diluted or decimated in order to cut costs. By 1998 (the time period of this workplace observation), the company’s core staff consisted of 13 middle to upper management positions with a general staff of 65 part-time employees, ranging in positions from janitorial to clinical operations. The long-term psychological noise of financial problems and downsizing, along with the current problems of insecurity and fear, have combined to produce a potentially serious problem among the staff.
The setting for this workplace observation is the twice-a-week staff meeting between the major employees at a pharmaceutical research company. This scene was selected for the following reasons: 1) the ability to observe constant interaction between the staff members in the same or similar setting on a regular basis; 2) the ability to observe how the participants have made adjustments to their communication habits and the constant hierarchical changes due to the company’s upheaval; 3) many of the staff members have been employed by the company at least six years and 4) the new recruiting and screening manager, who is one of the core staff members, though only has been working with the company for less than a year. Accordingly, the new employee is able to provide a different observational aspect, given she is still as an “outsider” because of her relative “newness” to the company.
EMPLOYEES/CULTURAL SCENE PARTICIPANTS
The following is a flowchart of each participant’s position in the company’s hierarchical chain of command along with their work ‘characteristics.’
Employee’s ‘Work’ Characteristics:
• Mike He’s from the United Kingdom and is primarily based in the Maryland area; Has a medical background that is more scientific than pharmaceutical in nature (e.g., experimenting with lab animals regarding medical research); Joined the company in summer of 1996; Is very interested in turning the company around and at times sees himself as the only person who can accomplish this feat because he wasn’t associated with the company during the FDA incident; Is very concerned about making money and is willing to spend for the best, to a certain extent; Can be easy-going, but has volatile temper that has upset several staff members; Generally is open to new ideas; Travels a lot to market the company to new clients.
• Barbara is a physician who reviews all the study-related paperwork to ensure that the medical records are organized; Rarely shows up for staff meetings; Barely interacts nor speaks with the rest of the staff except for Rachel and Susan; Usually stops by after business hours to do her work.
• Bruce has also been with the company for a number of years (has the second-longest tenure); Not the stereotypical numbers man; He keeps to himself, mainly because, like Marie, he doesn’t interact with the rest of the staff on a regular basis; Usually remains in his office from 9-5 and leaves at the end of the day, having spoken with few people; Would give you the impression that he is very impersonal; however, he is a friendly and helpful individual.
• Chris joined the company three months ago; Seems interested in implementing new financial and management policy changes, but doesn’t like to rock the boat; Very agreeable, doesn’t like conflict; Always upbeat, at times viewed as being overly upbeat; Some staff members see him as a ‘don’t bring him no bad news’ type.
• Dawn has been with the company for over eight years; Her position is administrative in that she is responsible for handling all research study reports; Is considered by most staff members to be pretty relaxed and easy-going; Generally, doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone; Tendency to get behind in her work because she doesn’t inform others that she needs help; Not very good at handling management concerns; Other staff members are bothered that she doesn’t follow up on problems that her part-time underlings cause other staff members.
• Howard is very dedicated to his job and wants to make sure that he is doing everything right, which has led to his tendency to seek reassurance about what he is supposed to do; Isn’t viewed highly by the staff because of his tendency to loudly clear his throat of excessive saliva and his seeming inability to do his job without triple-checking with others.
• Jaimie works under Chris and handles all the processing and mailing out of payments; Doesn’t feel comfortable attending the staff meetings because of her non-pharmaceutical background; Normally she is very outgoing and opinionated.
• Joyce is responsible for copying and distributing all research documents. Seems very concerned about maintaining her position within the company; Doesn’t voice her opinion much; Doesn’t like to call attention to herself.
• Kathy is still trying to feel out her place in the company. She doesn’t have an immediate supervisor and isn’t sure who she is supposed to report to; Complains that she is left out of the loop and that no one informs her about what is going on with current studies.
• Marie is the longest-tenured employee and the sole survivor of the pre-FDA era at the company; Has a medical degree (M.D.) and a Ph.D., credentials which some staff find to be intimidating; She is self-assured, yet is a relaxed individual (once you get to know her) who cares that the company’s pharmaceutical research studies run smoothly.
• Nicole is the newest member of the company. Her background is in retail and market research; concerned about how receptive the staff (especially her director, Rachel) will be to changes she wants to make in how the company recruits and screens its study participants.
• Rachel is viewed as a very aggressive individual who gets things done and isn’t afraid of confrontation; Doesn’t like being inconvenienced by others and becomes irritated when she perceives others not working as hard as she does; Responsible for the clinic staff- the largest department in the company; Appears to be very aware of what is going on in her department and knows what she has to do to alleviate problems.
• Susan is the company’s spokesperson and point-of-contact when Mike isn’t available;. Is responsible for notifying the rest of the staff members regarding the status of potential, current, and future research studies; Tries to keep the staff in a good mood; Acts kind of flighty, as if she’s disorganized, but is practically always aware of what is going on throughout the company; She is the one who normally leads the staff meetings when Mike isn’t available.
WORKPLACE TENURE: COMMUNICATION STYLES
The main employees of this cultural scene are Marie (Director of Quality Assurance, who has been employed by the company for over 15 years) and Nicole (Manager of Recruiting and Screening, employed by the same company for eight months). The following is a breakdown of each employee’s strengths, limitations, and credibility involving the cultural scene:
Each of the employee’s play an important role in the twice-weekly staff meetings. Marie provides the other staff members with a “face of continuity”, reminding them of where the company has been. Nicole is a sign that the company is back on the right track because of its financial ability to hire new full-time staff members.
The differences that Marie and Nicole represent to the company can be seen in their communication styles and roles. An example of their differences is through their verbal behavior, which is connected to their position in the workplace/cultural scene. Marie’s technical background and experience with the company’s turmoil has affected her verbal behavior. Her verbal behavior is a sign of her role in the cultural scene as the company historian. Whenever she is asked her opinion by Mike, the company president, regarding the company’s ability to conduct certain pharmaceutical research studies, Marie normally answers using fillers such as “well” or a combination of fillers and qualifiers such as “Well, I think that ….” as if she doesn’t want to suggest anything that may place the company into a tailspin they’re still recovering from.
Furthermore, anytime Mike questions the company’s past history (e.g., its research performance, marketing history, profitability), Marie is expected to reply due to her lengthy tenure with the company – whether or not she has the knowledge and/or experience to reply. On the other hand, Nicole’s verbal language is similar to Marie’s by her use of disclaimers before being asked to comment, such as “Well, I haven’t been here long as the rest of you have so…..” or making use of a general qualifier with a disclaimer by leading off with “I don’t have you guys work background, but I think ….” as an example. Nicole’s role as a new employee (participant), however, allows her to pick and choose when she feels the need to use disclaimers, which is normally when she is asked about “pharmaceutical things.” When she is asked a out subjects that are within her area of expertise (e.g., marketing materials that can be distributed to potential clients), she does not make use of qualifiers, possibly because she is discussing non-pharmaceutical issues.
PHYSICAL SETTING OF WORKPLACE/CULTURAL SCENE
The staff meetings are held twice a week at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. The meetings last approximately one-hour and are held in a mid-size conference room that is normally used for client visits. The meetings are also held in this room because it is set up with an intercom/speaker phone (see example) in which Mike is able to “attend” the staff meetings when he’s out of town. Note: In the 1990s video conferencing technology via commercial use (let alone personal) was still fledgling, hence not widely available as it is today.
The room is set up like most conference rooms: cream-colored walls, light-beige wooden table forest-green cushioned roller chairs, dry-erase marker board, brown cabinet stacked with all the non-alcoholic liquid amenities for thirsty clients. Additionally, there is a black malleable sofa against the wall if you get tired of sitting at a conference table. Unfortunately, the conference table is oval-shaped and can not seat more than nine people comfortably, which results in some staff members sitting at the table and some sitting on the couch when a staff meeting is in session. This situation has affected the ability of some participants to be heard clearly by others because part of the staff is sitting two to five feet from the conference table. Furthermore, it makes those participants who are forced to sit on the sofa to feel isolated from the staff members who are able to sit at the table (mainly because they arrived early for the meeting).
The conference table has inadvertently become a status symbol for the participants where certain staff members are expected to sit at the table (Susan, Rachel, Marie) because of the nature of their constant interaction with Mike. They are the dominant speakers at the staff meetings due to their positions in the company. The physical setting has also been an excuse for some staff members to withdraw from or remain uninvolved in the meetings. At times, staff members will purposely seat themselves on the sofa when there are seats available at the conference table. Simply put, the physical setting for these staff meetings is detrimental to the communication process because it creates a kind of psychological “noise” (Drs. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver‘s Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication) that causes staff members to not be mentally in attendance at the staff meetings due to seating arrangements.
Each meeting starts out with Susan bringing the meeting to order either by announcing that Mike is available to commence via intercom or she just simply starts reading from the timeline agenda. The timeline is a listing of the status of past, current, and potential studies. The staff meeting procedure is that Susan reads off the names of the studies and study numbers then waits for the appropriate party to speak regarding the status of the study. For example, if the status of study is in the recruiting phase, Nicole reports on the process. If the study is in the statistical analysis phase, either Bruce or Marie comments on the status of their work. Once commentary by person X on study Y has tapered off, Susan then goes to the next study. This procedure is repeated until each study listed on the timeline has been discussed . The communication process of the staff meetings are affected by the following circumstances:
- Seating arrangements
- Presence of the company president
- How ‘well’ work went the day before the meeting
- Staff seniority
1. Seating Arrangements
To reiterate, seating arrangements play an important role in the communication process between staff members. The ‘seating arrangements’ context makes it easier for some staff members to distance themselves, have limited or no involvement with the ‘cultural scene’ of the staff meeting. This results in staff members having to shift their body to make eye contact with someone who isn’t sitting at the table. When directing a question at a staff member not seated at the table, the staff member precedes the question by calling out the staff member’s name in the form of a question. If Rachel had a question for Joyce, she would say “Joyce?”, for example before asking the question- as if she wasn’t sure if Joyce had been paying attention. The impression is that those who sit at the table are more attentive and involved in the meeting procedures verses those on the peripheral (couch seats) who are seen as “just showing up because they’re expected to” (to quote a staff member).
2. Presence of the Company President
Mike is not normally in attendance because he is based in Baltimore. In order for him to remain involved in the staff meetings, the meetings are conducted with him via intercom in the conference room. Because Mike isn’t physically present, he’s not aware of who’s in attendance. Similar to the seating arrangements context, Mike precedes each question with a question of who is and isn’t in attendance. This occurs a few times throughout the meeting until he finds out if a particular person has finally arrived for the meeting and/or to see if they are still there. This is usually done in the following manner: “Is Marie there?,” “Has Rachel arrived yet?,” or “Did Bruce leave?”. Then the person whom Mike wants to speak with usually answers (in a loud and enunciated manner) by saying, “Yeah, I’m here Mike.” Another result of Mike ‘s ‘intercom presence’ is that the meetings are ten to fifteen minutes shorter. A possible reason for this occurrence is the staff’s seeming uncomfortability with this type of interaction (e.g., speaking to an intercom). Many of the staff members have expressed dissatisfaction with having to “yell” their comments to Mike and having to repeat their comments because of the “crappy” intercom set-up. In comparison to the more detailed staff meeting discussions (e.g., study status, client comments, company’s history with the drug, more potential business with current client, etc.) that occur when Mike is physically present, it appears that the staff lessens their comments to Mike when the meetings are conducted via intercom because he’s out of town. This results in the staff members exchanging varying degrees of information regarding the status of studies (e.g., limited to expansive) – depending on the nature of their involvement with a particular study, their perceived status with Mike and their interest-level in the staff meeting.
3. How “Well” Work Went the Day Before the Staff Meeting
This communication context has a similar result as the aforementioned ‘intercom context’. If a staff member or members’ work has fallen behind schedule or has not gone as well as scheduled, the staff experiences upward and horizontal communication to discuss what steps have been taken to alleviate the situation.
Upward communication has “multiple functions” which is exemplified by subordinates telling their supervisors about the highlights of their work and solving work problems (Cohn, Study Guide, 8.19). Several examples of this occur regularly in the staff meetings, such as 1) Rachel questioning Mike regarding the inclusion/exclusion criteria of a study; 2) Howard asking Mike about a drug shipping date; 3) Joyce speaking with Dawn about the due date a report needs to go out.
Horizontal communication is defined as “messages flow[ing] laterally between persons of the same rank or department [in order to] coordinate work tasks, solve problems, resolve conflict and build alliances.” (Cohn, Study Guide 8.19) Usually this type of communication doesn’t occur in staff meetings. It is a component of this company’s staff meetings, however, therefore it occurs on an occasional basis. At times, the exchange of messages between the department members is irrelevant to the rest of the staff members as a whole and takes up a portion of the staff meeting. An example of this is when Rachel and Howard have discussions concerning the appropriate freezer temperature to store drugs or the possible adverse reactions that the study participants may have to a drug. The staff members who do not have a pharmaceutical and/or medical background (Nicole, Kathy, Joyce, Chris and Jaimie) are inadvertently excluded from the conversation, which results in silence until the departmental discussion is interrupted by Mike or the problem is resolved.
4. Staff Seniority
This factor plays an important part in Mike’s interactions with the staff members, specifically with Marie and Bruce. They have been with the company for over ten years, which Mike seems to acknowledge through his solicitation of their opinions, especially after a less senior staff member has commented upon a study dealing with Marie or Bruce’s area – whether they were involved in the study/work or not. The following is a conversation of ‘staff seniority’ context in effect:
Another result of staff seniority context is that the senior staff members can question Mike regarding meetings he has had with potential clients. If a lesser senior member, such as Jaimie, ask about a client meeting, Mike usually responds by stating “I don’t think it will work out,” “It went well as could be expected” or simply “Fine” in a way that doesn’t allow nor welcome an opportunity for follow-up. However, if Marie or Bruce ask about how a meeting went, Mike will provide them with a detailed description, such as potential profit, client characteristics, and the possible studies the company would do on the client’s behalf. What makes this communication process so unusual is that it occurs consecutively, as if Bruce or Marie are asking a follow-up question. This type of interaction has made the younger and less senior employees more hesitant in attempting to find out about the company’s progress.
CULTURE SPECIFIC JARGON
The jargon used by the employees at this company is heavily medical or job-specific in nature. It is full of terminology that many laymen would have a hard time understanding, unless they are a part of the cultural scene. There are times, however, that participants who haven’t been involved in a scene or have left a scene may not be familiar with the terminology, even though they are a participant. Nicole has been working for the company for almost six months, for example, and yet she still continues to come across terminology with which she is not familiar with. Marie has informed Nicole that most of the word usage in the company is a carryover from its “old days”, but with the influx of new staff, some new definitions cropped up in certain departments, especially among the clinical staff. Most of the jargon consists of shortened names or acronyms exclusively used by this company. The following is a glossary of the terminology used by this company:
According to Dr. Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, “every culture or social group has patterns of communication unique to that group that a new member of the group must learn to display appropriate knowledge of communicative behavior at some point in his or her life to be accepted,” or in Nicole’s case to be able to conduct herself appropriately in the twice-weekly staff meetings. Marie informed Nicole regarding the terminology used by many of the staff members, but she did not inform Nicole of all the staff meeting “rules”. This may have been due to the fact that explicit (stated) rules are more recognizable than implicit (unstated) rules or agreements concerning communication. The following is a list of the explicit and implicit rules that are followed in the staff meetings:
A. Explicit Rules
- Each participant (meeting attendee) can only take x-number of timeline copies based on their department. For example, since Marie works alone, she could not take three copies of the timeline agenda.
- When Mike is attending the meeting via conference call, the participants (meeting attendees) are expected to announce to him that they are present by saying something to effect of “Yeah! We’re here.”
- The meetings start at 11 a.m. If a participant can’t be there or will be late, then he/she are expected to inform Susan before the start of the meeting.
- Once a participant enters the conference room, he/she is expected to remain until the meeting is over.
- When Mike is attending the meeting via intercom, sotto voce communication (talk among participants) is prohibited.
- If a participant is dissatisfied with another’s performance regarding an issue – it is to be handled outside the meeting. Staff members/participants are expected to work it out among themselves, in order to combat dissension. If the members are unable to handle it, then Mike steps in to help resolve the matter.
- Questions are to remain strictly study-related and based on the studies listed on the meeting timeline/agenda. If a participant wants to address the staff at the meeting regarding unrelated issues (e.g., building security), he/she must inform Susan a day before the meeting – so that she can place it on the meeting agenda.
B. Implicit Rules
- Susan always brings the “meeting to an order.” This is done when she distributes the handouts (the timeline agenda) and starts reading off the study number and then waits for the appropriate person(s) to comment and/or question the status of the study.
- Susan sits the closest to the intercom/speakerphone (the head of the conference table) so that Mike can readily hear her managing the meeting.
- When Mike is physically present at the staff meetings, he sits at the head of the table and leads the staff meetings by reading off the study names/numbers (taking Susan’s place as the meeting lead).
- If there is confusion and/or need for more discussion regarding a study between a departmental head and his/her staff – it is to be done after the staff meeting, not in front of other staff. For example, if Rachel was concerned about a comment Nicole said regarding a study, she would not question her about it until after the meeting.
- No eating allowed! This implicit rule is enforced in a subtle manner. When Chris joined the company, he brought some donuts with him to his first few meetings. The staff immediately made comments such as “You forgot to eat breakfast today?” or “Make sure not to get any sticky-stuff on your notes!” For the next couple of meetings, Chris dealt with these comments in an amicable manner. After his third meeting, Chris no longer brought food with him. The staff then commented that he had finally found the time to eat breakfast before he came to work.
- Attendees are not to make negative comments regarding the clients (especially when it concerns their lack of payment) at the meetings when Mike is in attendance (in person or via intercom).
- When Mike complains about the company’s database problems or any problems that the company is having, attendees/participants should not make unsolicited suggestions for improvement during the staff meetings.
Normally, we follow rules, whether we are aware of them or not, because we never think that we have an option not to follow them. The old saying that “rules are meant to be broken” never mentions that there are consequences for breaking some of those rules. Generally, we follow rules, whether there are minor or severe consequences for breaking them. Psychologist Frederick R. Ford has five ‘Family of Rules‘ that can also be applied in the workplace: 1) the rule; 2) the counter rule; 3) the rule of qualifications and exceptions; 4) the consequences of breaking the rule and 5) the rule that tells how the rule should be implemented.
In this cultural scene/physical setting (e.g. the staff meeting), there may not be severe consequences for breaking explicit and implicit rules, but you may receive a dirty look or two. The rule of the staff meeting is that Susan always signals when the meetings are about to commence. The counter rule is that if Susan is not available to conduct the meeting and Mike is not available, then Rachel takes over the role. The rule of qualifications and exceptions is that when Mike is physically present, he will initiate the staff meetings. The consequence(s) of breaking the rule of ‘Susan starts the meetings’ is that the person who attempts to start the meeting may be viewed as rude and/or will receive a look that will dissuade them from continuing. The rule that tells how the rule should be implemented is when Susan distributes the timeline agenda to the rest of the staff members and says something like “okay, let’s get started.” (Leeds-Hurwitz, 31-33).
“Nonverbal communication refers to those aspects of communication other than the use of words.” (Cohn, 9.5) As the old axiom goes, one cannot not communicate. Nonverbal communication is a perfect example of a just because you’re not using your voice does not mean you’re not communicating. While Mike was discussing a study, for instance, Nicole had both of her hands pressed into her eye sockets. Mike then asked her if the study was going well recruiting-wise (the study was not). Mike made the correct assumption with Nicole’s nonverbal movements that she was concerned about the recruiting process of the study. Another example of nonverbal communication being very communicative is when nonverbal communication contradicts verbal communication. In one of the staff meetings, Rachel wanted to know if Bruce would have the statistics she needed so that she could ship the report to the client Federal Express. Bruce assured her that she would have the statistics in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, he was tapping his pen incessantly against his notebook, which would signify that he was not as sure as he professed.
Nonverbal communication can also be used to demonstrate status and power within a given context or setting. In the company’s staff meeting, all the participants normally sit in their chairs in a similar manner. Everyone usually sits straight, look straight ahead and keep their swiveling to a minimum. Mike doesn’t seem to affect this type of behavior at the staff meetings. He swings and rocks his chair back and forth, places his arms behind his neck and stretches his leg out. At times, he puts his feet on the conference table when he is in the midst of an explanation. As he moves, the staff members follow his movements with their eyes. If you walked into the room without any knowledge of the company hierarchy, you would know that Mike is the person in charge.
Nonverbal communication consists of certain categories that we use in our daily lives to aid in our “unseen” human interaction. This can especially be the case when you are in attendance at a staff meeting, as in this particular instance. At times, the employees/participants are being frugal with their verbal communication, but their nonverbal communication provides important information that cannot possibly be heard. Chronemics as one form of nonverbal communication deals with the usage of time to communicate. If some of the staff meeting participants are constantly late, it is assumed that they consider the meetings unimportant. As a result, when one of the latecomers ask about something that was discussed in their absence, they are told to “get here on time” if they want to know. Costuming, cosmetics and organismics are a form of communication that is applicable when the company has potential clients coming to visit the facility. Mike warns the staff to “dress up” in order to make the impression that they are a professional organization. The use of haptics, communication via touch, comes into play only when Mike grabs a participant’s shoulder to express his feelings that the individual did a good job. Haptics is usually not incorporated into staff meetings. Objectics (use of objects) to aid in communication (or in the case of the conference table, to hinder communication) during the staff meetings are minimal at best. The best example of an object being used as a tool of communication is the timeline agenda, which helps the participants follow the meeting. Oculesics (use of eyes) and kinesics (body movements and gestures) to communicate nonverbally in the staff meetings is mainly done to show approval, disapproval, concern, irritation, anger, or agreement with what is being discussed at the meeting. An example of kinesics was when Nicole was rubbing her eye sockets while Mike was discussing a particular study which was causing her some distress. Olfactics (sense of smell) is rarely a part of the staff meeting at least based on the definition, which is “targeted to evoke a particular memory perception or motion.” The only time it becomes an issue is if a staff member comments on a smell outside the staff meeting area. Proxemics (personal space; space between others) is communicated in this setting through the unofficial seating arrangements of the staff members. As discussed previously, those who have a lot of interaction with Mike are usually the ones who sit at the conference table. Vocalics (voice expression) plays an important role in symbolizing the status of each of the staff members through their vocal behavior, whether someone speaks loudly and concisely to make sure that they are heard or someone who speaks in a hesitant tone. All these styles are signs of non-verbal communicative behavior. (Cohn, 9.5-9.7).
In a perfect world, everyone would know how to communicate in a format that is always acceptable, comprehensible, non-contradictory, and error-proof. Is this possible? In order for communication perfection to be possible, we would have to have a stream-lined communication process, one without deviation. Leeds-Hurwitz would find this to be impossible because of her view that “communication [that is] bound to context is multichannel.” One of these channels is communication as behavior in context. “No behavior has meaning in and of itself, outside the situation in which it occurs (Leeds-Hurwitz, 153). For example, outside the staff meeting context, Mike’s solicitation of Marie and Bruce’s opinions regarding Rachel’s statistical tables may just be viewed as a sign of respect for their experience. Within the meeting context, however, it has a host of other connotations, one of which can be his apparent lack of respect or faith in Rachel’s ability to do the job.
It would seem that the main communication problem that is occurring in this staff meeting context is that Mike is not physically in attendance on a regular basis. When he attends the meeting via intercom/conference call, several behavioral problems occur such as 1) lessened information discussed between him and a staff member about his/her assignment and even less among the staff as a whole; 2) Mike’s questioning of who is and is not in attendance gives staff members the impression that certain individuals have a higher status and are deemed ‘more important’ than others; 3) the fact that the staff cannot see how Mike is reacting to the discussed information causes members to tailor their response(s) based on their interpretation of what Mike’s tone, pauses or silence denotes. As a result, staff person(s) might understate a work problem or to get into a lengthy discussion about project X or task Y if they think he is or is not concerned about the situation.
A solution to this situation may be something simple as having a video conference call (instead of using a speaker phone) when Mike cannot be physically present, where the members are able to see and hear him. On the other hand, since communication is multi-channel, this format can bring about a host of other behavioral situations due to this particular context. In other words, communication, context and behavior can never be perfect.
The largest communication problem that occurs in the staff meetings has little to do with technology, but has more to do with psychological noise. As defined by Shannon and Weaver, psychological noise can include feelings of anxiety, depression, boredom, and anger (Cohn, 1.4). It can also include feelings of insecurity and fear, which are the two bits of psychological noise present at the staff meetings. Mike’s constant need of feedback from the two employees who have the most experience with the pharmaceutical company (Marie and Bruce) while limiting and/or excluding feedback from the other staff members creates an atmosphere of insecurity for the staff as a whole. A staff member’s insecurity could be about their ability to perform their duties, their level of intelligence, their qualifications, their place in the company, or even the possibility of termination. Mike shows signs of his own insecurities and fears by not soliciting comments, concerns or questions from staff members who happen to have less than ten years’ worth of company experience. Mike is insecure about his position as president of the company, and needs to affirm his standing by garnering opinions from his most experienced staff members. In short, the pharmaceutical company’s recent history of problems and downsizing — a form of long-term psychological noise — combined with Mike’s lack of experience with the company (has been president for roughly 20 months) has caused a fear of failure to creep in Mike’s communications with the staff. This fear results in Mike taking a hard-line approach during staff meeting in limiting discussion to the company ‘s pharmaceutical studies rather than discussing any problems or issues regarding the company’s operations. Staff members explicitly or implicitly pick up on Mike’s psychological noise and, in turn, have become insecure and fearful regarding the company’s future status.
Whether the pharmaceutical research services company obtains new equipment for video/internet conferencing or not, the problem of long-term (e.g., downsizing, financial shortfall) and short-term (e.g., insecurities and fears) psychological noise must be solved to achieve a better flow of communication. Mike must become more secure in soliciting opinions and questions from all of the key staff members, not just the most experienced ones. Issues that might be problematic and painful must be aired in a more open format for discussion, and staff members must be made to feel secure that they will be listened to if they disagree with Mike or with each other. Otherwise, the company’s psychological noise might turn into the physical noise of younger staff members clearing out their offices and leaving to take other jobs.
Update: Nicole was terminated in 1998 (nine-months after the start of her tenure) due to conflict in regards to her role/duties with the company. The rest of the staff had been terminated or resigned by 2006, including the president. As of 2018, only Rachel has continued to be employed by the company, in a higher-ranked position.
Cohn, Ellen, Communications 300: Introduction to Non-Verbal Communication Study Guide, University of Pittsburgh, Spring 1998
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy, Communication in Everyday Life: A Social Interpretation, Praeger Press, 1989
Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication. Communication Theory. Retrieved from https://www.communicationtheory.org/shannon-and-weaver-model-of-communication/. (Last retrieved, October 31, 2018).