Sunday, March 22, 2009

Individuals in Organizations

I originally wrote this entry on August 10, 2004 and published it on

Chester Barnard provides the following account of the "individual" in organizations:

The individual human being possesses a limited power of choice. At the same time he is a resultant of, and is narrowly limited by, the factors of the total situation. He has motives, arrives at purposes, and wills to accomplish them. His method is to select a particular factor or set of factors in the total situation and to change the situation by operations on these factors. These are, from the viewpoint of purpose, the limiting factors; and are the strategic points of attack. The Functions of the Executive (1938)

Barnard starts by noting our limited power of choice. Earlier in his book he amplifies on this theme connecting choice to context (i.e. "factors of the total situation") one is acting in. The structure of action is then decomposed into motives, purposes and will. In terms of actual practice of acting, he notes that individuals usually select a factor or a set of factors in the "total situation" to affect. For example, say you don't like your career path. It could be because of where you are, what you're doing, who you're reporting to, the goals or the team. One can change one or a set of these factors. Which actual factor is selected depends on one's total situation. Next Barnard discusses purpose. Purpose determines one's goal. From the point of view of one's goals, some factors may be limiting. Those factors are exactly the ones that will be selected for change.

That's a brief summary of Barnard's views on "individual" actors in an orgniazation.

In the next post, I'll summarize his views on what moves individuals in an organization to adopt group purposes.

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