The Ecphorizer

A New Theory of Organizations
JoAnn Malina

Issue #19 (March 1983)



I belong to an organization composed of the users of a certain manufacturer's large computers. Some of its members have access to a conferencing system by which information can be exchanged between meetings, which take place every three months. One of the files currently being read and commented on was started by a newcomer who was disgruntled by the reception he received upon first attending one of the conferences. He complained of the cliquishness of the "insiders," [quoteright'/>identifiable by the ribbons appended to their badges (which are supposed to make them visible to those who have business to transact with them). He claimed that both meetings and the after-hours open bar session consisted of acquaintances of long standing holding conversations, technical and otherwise, that shut out everyone else. These accusations were met with various reactions: indifference, agreement with promises to change, agreement with a nothing-can-be-done-about-it attitude, and defensiveness from some of those targeted.

This should all sound familiar to anyone who's ever been active in Mensa. After contemplating both this and other situations in which I have been involved, I believe I have detected the erroneous thinking that creates such controversies.

There are two fallacies confusing anyone who believes that the above situation, whether in Mensa or in professional organizations, is amenable to change. The first concerns the belief that human organizations have a purpose. The second, that in-groups are an unfortunate accident.

As to purpose, we here introduce Malina's Law: Organizations exist for the purpose of having an organization. They give people a way to pass time together. This time will be spent gossiping, grooming, forming and dissolving affinity groups, and in other interpersonal interactions that may or may not have anything to do with the stated purpose of the organization.

Anyone who goes on believing that organizations exist to do things (think great thoughts, exchange information, run countries, discover cures for cancer) is in error, and is probably male. Women have known better since the dawn of time. We have allowed male thinking to creep into human organizations, and we have all been much the worse for it.

After all, organizations are composed of individuals, all of whom put their personal needs before the needs of the organization, which only exists because they all agree it does. Even persons who claim to put the needs of the organization before their own, do so because that is what they need to do to live with themselves. The amount of extraneous "work" that an organization can get done depends on the efficiency with which the real (personal) objectives of each of the individuals are met. Why anyone expects people to behave less humanly in an organization with a "purpose" (say, a business) than they do in one that ostensibly has none (a cocktail party), is beyond comprehension. It is in fact not possible to not spend most of the group's time meeting these personal needs. Even a discussion about whether there is or is not an "in group," and, if there is one, how its members should behave, is meeting the need of the people to establish their presence and status in the group.

As to the structure of organizations once formed, we have Malina's Corollary: Every organization forms an in-group which steers its activities in a way that tends to perpetuate its dominance. It is either possible to join this group or overthrow it, in which case you establish one of your own. Some people are not interested in doing either.

The beauty of these laws is that any activity people do in groups can be shown to be meeting their personal needs, including giving all their time and energy doing the dirty work of the organization. Those who do this dirty work get their jollies doing it; perhaps they need to be giving to a cause. They are to be appreciated by those who reap the benefits of belonging to the organization without helping it to function; but they are not heroes. Neither are they villains.

Remember we said that it was generally possible to break into the "in-group." One way is to have a desired commodity, such as being female in an organization that is 80% male, as in the aforementioned computer group. Another way to get acceptance in this organization, of course, is by being both technically knowledgeable and verbal about it. However, if you are also personally obnoxious, you get listened to in technical sessions, but no one invites you to dinner. Unfortunately for those who have not learned them, acceptance in nearly any group is determined by the same basic social skills; fortunately, nearly anyone with human genes can learn them. At some point, everyone must take responsibility for their own participation.

Now, the best way not to get accepted by those currently controlling an organization is to come roaring in telling them how they're screwing up. No one likes to be attacked, whether justifiably or not. It is a curious mentality that believes that those who perpetrate these attacks are thereby endeared to their targets. Those who so attack may perhaps believe that all rules about courtesy and friendliness can be scrapped because an organization has a "purpose"; but as I have shown, such purposes are always secondary to the opportunity for human interaction. After making such an attack, one either wrests control of the organization or goes back to its periphery.

One thing that may be said in favor of raising hell, especially as one's initial interaction, is that it does get attention. However, a yelp that makes it clear that one wants to join the party ("No one is paying attention to me!") is a better way to get noticed than a frontal attack ("You're running this show all wrong!"); in the former case, people will generally bend over backwards to show that they are not snobbish and cliquish. The person mentioned in my initial example now has the attention of the "in-crowd." He can, by being friendly and helpful when asked what he wants to contribute, become part of things. If he declines, he evidently just wanted to make noise.

Of course, as always in wresting the eternal laws of nature from a mere mass of observations, I have somewhat overstated the case. Human beings do form organizations for the purpose of "doing things." But to expect that, just because a person has taken on a title ("Secretary," "Senator," "LocSec"), they will cease to be above the anthropoid ape they were all along, is unrealistic. 

If only we all recognized that the real purpose of any organization from Mensa to the Supreme Soviet, from the Atherton Tuesday Afternoon Bridge Club to the Catholic Church, from the average family to the faculty of MIT -- is first of all to give the humans who inhabit it something to poke, tickle, bite, stroke, pick nits from (with?), and play with! Much breath could be saved that is now expended arguing about how people should behave, and the energy could go into seeing that everyone got a chance to play. But then, some people's way of playing is to fling dung around; and there's an end to my sermon. 

Contributor Profile

JoAnn Malina

She was a former officer and newsletter staffer in San Francisco Regional Mensa. She was well-known for her columns about the behavior of Mensans. An escapee from Chicago, she has worked as a career programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.




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