Why Do All Wise Organizations Sound the Same?

Organizational sociology is important to understand.

America's key institutions have awoken in the same manner that a bankrupt person does: slowly at first, then all at once. How come so many of us have been in a diversity-training session where we were separated into racially segregated "affinity groups" or heard yet another sackcloth-and-ashes statement from management and thought to ourselves, "They can't possibly believe this, right?" Any response should start with the prominent theories in organizational sociology: neo-institutionalism and isomorphism. Organizations move outside their core strengths to copy market leaders and fulfill the needs of their trading partners, regulatory agencies, and important workers, according to the notion.

Bronisaw Malinowski suggested, based on his research into a Stone Age civilization in New Guinea, that when humans are faced with uncertainty, they resort to magic to appease the capricious spirits responsible for their inexplicable misfortune. Corporate executives do not engage shamans to restock fisheries or to prevent a storm since they are smart individuals who went to business school. Instead, they bring in consultants to help the firm embrace best practices. But as Charles Fain Lehman explains, John Meyer and Brian Rowan’s 1977 paper in the American Journal of Sociology, “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” argues that this distinction is a farce—that much behavior as practiced by modern corporations, NGOs, and government agencies is not about technical efficacy that rationally orients means to ends but ritual, vaguely intended to elicit good fortune by achieving legitimacy with the firm’s “environment.”

Following Meyer and Rowan was Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s “The Iron Cage Revisited,” published in 1983 in the American Sociological Review. DiMaggio and Powell fleshed out the theory with three specific pathways for why organizations adopt similar practices—or, in their language, become isomorphic.

Consider, first, coercive isomorphism—when an organization adopts practices because the state or its trading partners demand that it do so. As Frank Dobbin and John Sutton noted in the American Journal of Sociology in 1998, affirmative action began as a response to executive orders that applied not to all firms but specifically to federal contractors. This duty, however, applies to most of the economy since most significant enterprises sell, or aim to sell, something to the federal government. Similarly, the majority of federal higher-education policy is based on imposing conditions on federal funds. If a college is prepared to forego federally subsidized student loans and NIH money, it can defy the Department of Education's "Dear Colleague" letters, but that is a costly assertion of autonomy. And, as Richard Hanania has argued, civil rights law is enforced through torts based on the premise that imbalances are purposeful, providing organizations a broad but powerful mandate to err on the side of caution in avoiding anything that may verify that premise.

What about affluent high schools, many of which have recently become more enlightened? Prep schools must be isomorphic to college admissions since their value proposition is top college admissions. Prep schools will offer lacrosse and crew if college admissions preferences for athletes favor involvement in obscure sports. And if college admissions reward essays that express anguish over social justice and privilege, prep schools will cultivate anguish over social justice and privilege in their students—every bit as enthusiastically as a century ago they’d have molded the character that makes a man a tip-top member of a private club.

A more immediate form of coercive isomorphism pushing schools toward wokeness is accreditation. As Aaron Sibarium reported for the Washington Free Beacon, the National Association of Independent Schools exercises a quasi-governmental role as the accreditation board for top prep schools. NAIS mandates ever more strenuous and belligerent diversity programs so that a school that wants to remain in the club of elite prep schools—with all the prestige and resources that implies—must ratchet wokeness ever upward.

Normative isomorphism describes how knowledgeable experts mold the field to meet their needs. Normative isomorphism, in its original form, meant that professionals shaped companies to act the way they taught an organization should operate in graduate school. In this sense, it's important emphasizing that educational institutions have been incredibly woke for a generation, well ahead of the rest of the culture, so teachers and administrators have internalized the belief that social justice is intimately linked to their mission.

Employee activism is becoming increasingly obvious in the period of the Great Awakening as a potent factor for altering corporate conduct. For instance, Apoorva Ghosh recently demonstrated in Socio-Economic Review that employee LGBT caucuses are the most important explanation for why corporate America began covering gender transition in employee health plans. College-educated liberals have demanded that their workplaces reflect their views on the "antiracism" movement as wokeness has grown in popularity. It's no different at elite prep schools.

Mimetic isomorphism refers to an organization's inclination to mirror its conduct after that of industry leaders. The reputation of a practice is derived by its affiliation with notable organizations. For example, Pollyanna, a private education diversity consulting organization, has a client roster that includes 77 of America's finest high schools. This conveys the message that any institution who feels itself to be on par with Harvard-Westlake or Dalton should hope Pollyanna would accept them as a customer. Pollyanna also exemplifies the other two isomorphisms: coercive, because NAIS requires prep schools to hire them, and normative, because consulting firms are by definition normative.

Neo-institutionalism helps explain why we see organizations engage in practices that don’t serve the bottom line. Ultimately, legitimacy trumps efficacy. Suppose that you’re a manager who reads the academic literature, sees that the heavy-handed self-criticism styles of sexual-harassment or racial-diversity training are somewhere between useless and counterproductive, and proposes canceling next year’s training. Legal will complain that if you face a wrongful-dismissal claim anytime soon, this would make you seem awful. And some of your most important contracts demand that your firm's co-located personnel be certified as having completed the training. Many employees will remark that they want the company to demonstrate its principles, such as attending seminars with "privilege walks" to reinforce the company's commitment to abolishing white supremacy and other kinds of dominance. These stakeholders will remind out that all of your industry's top competitors organize such seminars; it's "best practice." So you continue to worship the gods, despite the fact that you know they don't exist, since everyone around you believes in the spirits and, much more so, in the ceremonies that honor them, and would regard a lack of piety as a sign of illegitimate leadership.

This is the core of social reality construction: factual facts might be less important than intersubjective consensus. You should adapt to other people's expectations, no matter how extreme or absurd they may be, because their views are objective facts.

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