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Structural adaptation theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

Structural adaptation theory was proposed by Johnson, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Humphrey, Meyer and Jundt (2006). This theory applies some of the principles of physical symptoms to social systems, like work teams.

First, according to this theory, the level of complexity varies across social systems. In this context, when a system is complex, individuals are granted specialized roles, which are coordinated effectively, centrally, cooperatively, and hierarchically. Individuals subordinate their personal interests to facilitate the system. When a system is simple, employees are not granted specialized roles and act more competitively, coordinated by decentralized authorities.

Second, more energy needs to be mobilized to maintain the structure and functioning of complex systems relative to simple systems. In this context, energy might be boosted by inspiring leaders, motivating incentive schemes, team meetings, workplace values, and so forth. Energy consumes effort, time, and money.

Third, over time, at least if insufficient energy is mobilized, complex and organized systems tend to degrade into simpler and chaotic systems. This principle is reminiscent of the second law of thermodynamics.

Unique contributions

Structural adaptation theory shows how the historical evolution of teams predicts more immediate inclinations. That is, in the past, many theories had attempted to identify which practices or processes are optimal, regardless of the history or evolution of this team. In contrast, structural adaptation theory recognizes that both the history and dynamics of teams or collectives affect which practices or processes are likely to be embraced or effective.

This perspective challenges traditional contingency theories. According to contingency theories, specific practices are most applicable in particular contexts. The optimal leadership style (House, 1971), reward structure (Balkin & Gomez-Mejia, 1987), workplace design (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), and conflict management approach (Ruble & Thomas, 1976), for example, is not the same in all environments.

One example is the situational-leadership model. According to this model, leaders should impose progressively less direction as employees mature and assume responsibility (Hersey & Blanchard, 1977).

Actually, Thompson and Vecchio (2009) distinguished three main variants of situational leadership theory. According to the first variant, before employees have matured in their role, supervisors should be very prescriptive. As employees mature, supervisors should try to be more persuasive rather than prescriptive. Eventually, quite mature employees should be encouraged to participate in decisions. Finally, supervisors should delegate important tasks to very mature employees. In this variant, maturity is primarily defined by a combination of commitment and competence.

The second main variant of situational leadership theory distinguishes commitment and competence. According to this variant, supervisors of employees who are committed but not competent, called the enthusiastic beginner, should be more directive. In contrast, employees who are not especially committed or competent, but feel disillusioned, may benefit from coaching. Third, employees with reasonable competence, but varying commitment, may benefit from supportive leaders. Finally, supervisors should delegate tasks to employees who exhibit both competence and commitment.

The third main variant of situational leadership theory, in essence, assumes that maturity primarily depends on experience. The main premise is merely that experienced individuals should be granted more autonomy.

Past research has uncovered some, but limited, evidence of these variants of situational leadership. The first variant seems to be valid, but almost only in recent recruits (for a review, see Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). The second variant has not been tested as extensively and initial tests have not been encouraging (Thompson & Vecchio , 2009). Furthermore, this variant does not describe how supervisors should behave for every combination of competence and commitment. The final variant has received tentative support. As Thompson and Vecchio (2009) showed, for example, autonomy is more likely to be effective, as gauged by the relationship between supervisors and subordinates, in experienced rather than inexperienced employees.

However, situational leadership theory, according to proponents of structural adaptation theory, is flawed. Conceivably, in general, mature employees are more likely to flourish when leaders offer less direction. Nevertheless, this finding does not imply that leaders should relinquish their direction as employees mature. These employees have developed an expectation of direction& therefore, if this direction is withdrawn, problems may unfold. Hence, the history of practices and processes could affect the subsequent utility of other practices and processes.

Initial evidence

Several studies have supported the broader proposition that historical antecedents affect the utility of some process, practice, or policy (e.g., Beersma, Hollenbeck, Conlon, Humphrey, Moon, & Ilgen, 2009& Johnson, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Humphrey, Meyer, & Jundt, 2006).

In the study conducted by Johnson, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Humphrey, Meyer, and Jundt (2006), 80 teams, each comprising four students, were formed. Each of the teams engaged in a military simulation over computer. Their mission was to prevent rivals, but not allies, from entering a geographical region, by monitoring radar screens, mounted on planes, helicopters, jets, or tanks. Each individual controlled the location of one vehicle from each class. Each radar screen was limited in scope. Hence, to monitor other areas, individuals could shift these vehicles or seek information from other members.

Overall, the team could access four planes, four helicopters, four jets, and four tanks. These classes of vehicles corresponded to distinct ranges of vision, speed of movement, weapons capability, and duration of operation.

The characteristics of some rivals and allies were specified in advance. Other rivals and allies were ambiguous, and individuals acquired knowledge of their properties through experience.

Each team completed the task twice. For each of these two sessions, either cooperation or competition was rewarded. To promote cooperation, for example, cash rewards depended on the performance or progress of the entire team& specifically, the prize would be distributed evenly among members of the winning team. To promote competition, only the individuals who outperformed most other participants received a prize.

To gauge performance, the speed with which rivals were attacked or identified was assessed. In addition, the number of times an ally was attacked was also evaluated. In Finally, team mates could also share information, warning other members of rivals. The number of times participants shared information was also recorded.

During the first session, cooperative teams were more likely than competitive teams to share information. Furthermore, as a consequence of this sharing of information, these cooperative teams performed more accurately.

During the second session, however, the results were different. Teams that were encouraged to compete in the first session did not perform proficiently if instructed to cooperate in the second session.

That is, in the first session presumably, these teams had developed a simple social system, in which individuals were not granted specialized roles and act more competitively. In the second session, these teams could not cooperate effectively to accommodate the modified reward scheme. That is, they could not form a complex social system, in which individuals are granted specialized roles and are coordinated effectively and cooperatively. This finding aligns to the proposition that undue energy is needed to shift a simple social system to a complex social system.

In contrast, teams that were encouraged to cooperate in the first session performed proficiently if instructed to compete in the second session. In the first session, these teams formed a complex social system, characterized by specialized roles and effective coordination. In the second session, these teams could operate as a simple social system, characterized by unspecialized roles and competition. Their proficiency during this session corroborates the inclination to shift from complex to simple systems.

First, according to this theory, the level of complexity varies across social systems. In this context, when a system is complex, individuals are granted specialized roles, which are coordinated effectively, centrally, cooperatively, and hierarchically. Individuals subordinate their personal interests to facilitate the system. When a system is simple, employees are not granted specialized roles and act more competitively, coordinated by decentralized authorities.

Second, more energy needs to be mobilized to maintain the structure and functioning of complex systems relative to simple systems. In this context, energy might be boosted by inspiring leaders, motivating incentive schemes, team meetings, workplace values, and so forth. Energy consumes effort, time, and money.

Third, over time, at least if insufficient energy is mobilized, complex and organized systems tend to degrade into simpler and chaotic systems. This principle is reminiscent of the second law of thermodynamics.

Additional evidence

Beersma, Hollenbeck, Conlon, Humphrey, Moon, and Ilgen (2009) corroborated and extended the findings derived by Johnson, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Humphrey, Meyer, and Jundt (2006). In particular, these authors also showed that teams decline in performance if they need to cooperate after originally competing. However, more importantly, they showed this decline was nullified if the members were granted an opportunity to discuss their unique roles before attempting to cooperate.

Specifically, in this study, participants controlled only one class of vehicles in the second session--and thus were, in essence, assigned unique roles. Some roles were more desirable, because the vehicles were more powerful or versatile.

Some teams were granted 10 minutes to discuss which roles should be assigned to each individual. Other teams were not granted time to discuss this issue: the experimenter randomly assigned roles to individuals.

When teams were granted an opportunity to assign roles, the usual deterioration in performance that arises when teams shift from competitive to cooperative reward structures diminished. These team discussions might highlight the potential to cooperate as well as facilitate the formation of coordinative processes. These discussions, thus, can be conceptualized as the energy that is needed to shift a team from a simple social structure to a complex social structure.

Alternatively, the benefits of team discussions can be ascribed to optimal distinctiveness theory. When individuals understand the unique role of each member, they feel more connected to the team, which induces a sense of security and might curb anxiety and competition.

References

Balkin, D. B., & Gomez-Mejia, L. R. (1987). Toward a contingency theory of compensation strategy. Strategic Management Journal, 8, 169-182.

Beersma, B., Hollenbeck, J. R., Conlon, D. E., Humphrey, S. E., Moon, H., & Ilgen, D. R. (2009). Cutthroat cooperation: The effects of team role decisions on adaptation to alternative reward structures. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 108, 131-142.

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1977). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (3rd ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

House, R. J. (1971). Path goal theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16, 321-339.

Johnson, M. D., Hollenbeck, J. R., Ilgen, D. R., Humphrey, S. E., Meyer, C. J., & Jundt, D. K. (2006). Cutthroat cooperation: Asymmetrical adaptation of team reward structures. Academy of Management Journal, 49, 103-120.

Lawrence, P. R., & Lorsch, J. W. (1967). Environmental demands and organizational states. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12, 1-47.

Ruble, T. L., & Thomas, K. W. (1976). Support for a 2-dimensional model of conflict behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 143-155.

Thompson, G., & Vecchio, R. P. (2009). Situational leadership theory: A test of three versions. Leadership Quarterly, 20, 837-848.



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Last Update: 6/27/2016