Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Importance of Cognitive Frames for Understanding HR Practices, Part 2 (Adding Workers In)

In the recent union organizing drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, workers were presented with competing narratives. Amazon portrayed unionization as unnecessary because it already provides good wages and benefits along with direct communication between workers and their managers, whereas union advocates emphasized the need for increased power through collective voice to counter Amazon’s power. While this messaging taps into employee fears or material interests, it also fundamentally reflects different beliefs about the underlying nature of the employment relationship. Is it best seen as a market-based transaction (which unions interfere with), a partnership in which organizations and workers share long-term interests (so unions are unnecessary), or an unequal relationship that includes conflict interests (so unions are needed to better balance power)?

Each of these underlying beliefs, which may be subconscious, comprises a distinct frame of reference on the nature of the employment relationship, where, more generally speaking, a frame of reference is a cognitive lens through which we perceive the world. In a previous post, I described the first part of new research with Dionne Pohler and Wei Huang in which we assert that we need to better consider leaders’ frames of reference in determining human resources (HR) strategies and practices. But as this example is meant to highlight, the second part of our research asserts the need to also factor in workers’ frames of reference.

As described in that post, we highlight four frames of reference on the employment relationship (neoliberal-egoist, unitarist, pluralist, and critical), and these apply equally to workers as well as organizational leaders. That is, workers have an implicit frame which shapes their expectations. One Amazon worker who supported unionization was quoted as saying, “I ain’t going to lie, I thought it was going to be a great place to work.” We can see differences in these expectations most visibly in the context of unionization, but this thinking applies to workers in all settings and pertains to all aspects of HR policies and practices. So just as we predict that a neoliberal-egoist manager will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist manager with a commitment approach, a pluralist manager with an accommodative approach, and a reformist critical manager with a cooperative approach, so, too, do we assert that neoliberal-egoist worker will favor practices consistent with a transactional approach, a unitarist worker with a commitment approach, a pluralist worker with an accommodative approach, and a critical worker with a cooperative approach.

But what happens when workers’ expectations are violated? Before addressing that, we recognize that there are many factors that push toward alignment rather than mismatch. Workers are not randomly assigned to organizations; rather, they apply for and accept certain jobs, are socialized into the organization, and can quit when their expectations are unfulfilled. Nevertheless, mismatched frames can occur for various reasons, including limited job opportunities for applicants, selection decisions that overlook fit or prioritize diversity, the inconsistent application of HR policies, new organizational leaders, and new events that change manager or employee frames. We’re not claiming that mismatch is more common than alignment; rather, we’re saying that the possibility of mismatch should not be overlooked as an organizational phenomenon and explanation for under-performing HR practices.

So again, what happens when workers’ expectations about HR practices are violated? We theorize that this will prompt workers to engage in a sensemaking process. This may cause them to come to accept what they are experiencing, to quit, or to resist the status quo. So a key part of our research is exploring what we think emerges from different combinations of (mis)matched frames between leaders and workers. For example, if they both have unitarist frames, we’d expect high-commitment HR practices created by leaders that are then embraced by workers, resulting in a high-performance organization. But a worker with a pluralist frame working for a neoliberal-egoist manager may try to find other similarly-minded co-workers to band together to fight for more voice, better pay, and other improved conditions. This mismatch is predicted to lead to conflict. Or, a neoliberal-egoist employee working for a unitarist manager is unlikely to engage with the high-commitment HR practices, leading to managerial frustration over under-utilized HR practices. Here is a brief summary of our predictions, with more detailed tables in our article:

Previous HR systems research has focused on archetypes—bundles or clusters of HR practices within organizations that are structurally determined, internally consistent, relatively stable over time, and documented across contexts—what we label here as transactional, commitment, accommodative, and cooperative. Our research seeks to highlight the important role of leaders’ frames of references, in addition to environmental, structural factors, for influencing the type of HR approach that emerges (see part 1 that precedes this postas well as the importance of shared frames with workers in order for an archetypical approach to be stable and result in less conflict. While there is a large research literature on person-organization fit, this has typically focused on job skills, organizational culture, or environmental and socially responsible values rather than beliefs regarding the structural nature of the employment relationship and resulting expectations about HR practices.

Moreover, by rooting expectations over HR practices in actors’ (mis)matched frames of reference, we can explain a broader and more nuanced set of HR policies and practices that better matches the variation observed in HR policies and practice in reality—including patterns that are more conflictual or the fact that competing organizations in the same industry can have very different HR strategies.

This also helps explain how conflict over HR practices sometimes results from employees wanting more, but also from managers’ frustration with a lack of employee commitment, loyalty, and participation. In this way, we propose a new categorization of HR practices: effective, underutilized, or causing recurring, antagonistic conflict.



Lastly, appreciating the potential importance of (mis)matched frames within the dynamics of an organization draws attention to the existence of framing contests within organizations. A framing contest is the intentional use of ideas and information to persuade others to adopt your frame, and thus follow your desired actions. We therefore expect managers to regularly use discursive practices to obtain and maintain employees’ acceptance of their frame of reference on the employment relationship as part of reinforcing a broader organizational logic that is viewed as legitimate. Organizations would generally have stronger communication channels than employees, but union organizing drives are one visible example where employees produce counter-narratives. In any case, this highlights the importance of communication practices within organizations not simply to inform, but to achieve conformity with the HR practices an organization wants its employees to buy into.

Source: John W. Budd, Dionne Pohler, and Wei Huang (forthcoming) "Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)stability in HR Practices," Industrial Relations. [free access to the pre-publication version here].

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