Chris Wilson, Assistant Professor at the School of Communications at Brigham Young University | chriswilson@byu.edu

Download Full Paper (PDF): View from the Upper Echelon: Examining Dominant Coalition Members’ Values and Perceptions and the Impact of Formal Environmental Scanning

Executive Summary
Organizations today face the challenge of pursuing their missions and achieving their goals while maintaining mutually beneficial relationships (Hon & J. E. Grunig, 1999) with a variety of stakeholder groups that demand transparency (Rawlins, 2008), expect authenticity (Arthur W. Page Society, 2007; Molleda, 2010), and are empowered through new media to affect organizational reputation and behavior (Arthur W. Page Society, 2007, 2012). In addition, organizations must deal with increased pressure from skeptical consumers, globalization, political polarization, and technological development (Arthur W. Page Society, 2007, 2012; Edelman, 2011). A reality of this increasing complexity is that organizations must manage relationships with a variety of stakeholders, some seeking to limit an organization’s freedom to operate and others seeking to enhance it (Edelman, 2011; L. A. Grunig, J. E. Grunig, & Dozier, 2002).

Practitioners and scholars agree that, in order for the public relations function to assist organizations in cultivating relationships with stakeholders, public relations practitioners must do more than just communicate messages. Rather, they must play an integral role in shaping organizational policy (Edelman, 2011; L. A. Grunig et al., 2002; Arthur W. Page Society, 2007, 2012). However, a group of the most powerful people in an organization (i.e., dominant coalition) makes the ultimate decisions about how public relations will be practiced by an organization. While research has largely focused on what public relations practitioners can do to become part of the dominant coalition (Berger, 2005), scholars have yet to fully examine “how things work inside the dominant coalition” (Berger, 2007, p. 229), which includes the values and perceptions of dominant coalition members that influence their decisions.

The purpose of this study is to take an exploratory step into determining “how things work in the dominant coalition” (Berger, 2007, p. 229). Specifically, this research aims to identify and examine certain values and perceptions of dominant coalition members that can be influenced by public relations activities. This study draws on research from public relations and organizational theory to identify and explore these values and perceptions and the relationships among them. Based on upper echelons theory (Hambrick & Mason, 1984), this study proposes that dominant coalition members’ values of organizational openness serve as a filter through which they form their perceptions of the organization’s operating environment (H1), which can be influenced by the formal environmental scanning activities of the public relations function (H2). In turn, dominant coalition members’ perceptions of the organization’s environment should affect their perceptions of organizational autonomy (H3).

The population of interest for this study was dominant coalition members of for-profit businesses, government agencies, and tax-exempt nonprofits in the United States. Data were collected through a national survey employing a purposive sample of 201 dominant coalition members at three for-profit businesses, three government agencies, and four non-profit organizations. These organizations were from the West, Mountain West, Midwest, South, and Southeast regions of the U.S. Both online and paper-and-pencil surveys were used. There were 118 usable questionnaires (58.71% response rate).

The first hypothesis predicted that as dominant coalition members’ values of organizational openness increased, they would perceive less uncertainty in their organization’s environment. This hypothesis was tested using Pearson correlations. There was a relatively weak positive relationship between dominant coalition members’ values of organizational openness to the environment and their perceptions of environmental uncertainty (r = .26, n = 93). Further analysis revealed that there was a moderate positive relationship between dominant coalition members’ openness to the environment and one of the dimensions of perceived environmental uncertainty, perceived environmental complexity (r = .43, n = 98).

Hypothesis 2 proposed an inverse relationship between dominant coalition members’ perceptions of public relations’ formal environmental scanning activities and their perceptions of environmental uncertainty. The correlations showed a relatively weak positive relationship between dominant coalition members’ perceptions of public relations’ use of formal environmental scanning and their perceptions of environmental uncertainty (r = .27, n = 96). However, correlations among perceptions of the public relations department’s use of formal environmental scanning and the three dimensions of perceived environmental uncertainty showed that perceptions of formal environmental scanning have a significant, positive relationship with perceived environmental complexity (r = .33, p < .001, n = 102) and perceived environmental threat (r = .22, p = .02, n = 107). Multiple regression was also used to control for dominant coalition members’ familiarity with the public relations department. Results showed that familiarity with the public relations department did not have a significant effect on perceived environmental complexity (β = .80, t = 1.91, p = .06), but perceptions of formal environmental scanning did have a significant positive effect (β = .36, t = 3.81, p <.001)

The third hypothesis predicted a negative relationship between dominant coalition members’ perceptions of environmental uncertainty and their perceptions of organizational autonomy. Correlations results showed a small but nonsignificant positive relationship between dominant coalition members’ perceptions of environmental uncertainty and their perceptions of organizational autonomy (r = .05, n = 96). This hypothesis also was tested by calculating correlation coefficients among the dimensions of environmental uncertainty and dominant coalition members’ perceptions of organizational autonomy. Whereas there were no significant relationships between perceptions of organizational autonomy and perceptions of environmental turbulence (r = -.06, n = 108) or perceptions of environmental threat (r = -.07, n = 106), there was a relatively weak positive relationship between dominant coalition members’ perceptions of environmental complexity and their perceptions of organizational autonomy (r = .24, n = 102). A final test of this hypothesis used correlations to examine the relationships among the three dimensions of perceived environmental uncertainty and the two dimensions of perceived organizational autonomy. The results indicated a relatively moderate positive relationship between perceptions of environmental complexity and perceptions of substantive autonomy (r = .30, n = 102).

This study took an initial step in identifying and examining the relationships among dominant coalition members’ values and their perceptions. In addition, it examined the role that formal environmental scanning plays in the formation of dominant coalition members perceptions. Specifically, this study found support for the upper echelons theory prediction that dominant coalition members’ values act as a filter through which they form perceptions about their organization’s environment and their organization’s place in it. Moreover, this study found that public relations can play a role in shaping dominant coalition members’ values toward and perceptions of their organization’s operating environment through the use of formal environmental scanning. This means that public relations managers need to be adept at using rigorous social scientific research methods to collect scanning data and packaging it in a way that will be meaningful for dominant coalition members in order to help them become more aware of and open to their complex operating environments.

Download Full Paper (PDF): View from the Upper Echelon: Examining Dominant Coalition Members’ Values and Perceptions and the Impact of Formal Environmental Scanning

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Join the Discussion