No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The New Boss

Part I: The New Boss

The bureaucratic administration essentially demands an impersonal working style, facilitated by a set of behavioral rules that ensure high predictability. The daily routine for civil servants is well-regulated, allowing them to keep their emotions private. But this approach doesn't always work, especially when a new boss is appointed in an office, department, or group—a rare but significant event in the administrative routine.

When a new leader is announced, there is noticeable nervousness, as uncertainty about the future disrupts work, and rumors provide a temporary sense of security. Even when a department head leaves, there is significant interest, with discussions about succession affecting even the lower ranks. Those who know more than others during these times gain attention and prestige.

The appointment of a new boss doesn't immediately solve problems. Understanding the reasons and backgrounds of these issues continues to preoccupy everyone. The first meeting with the new boss is critical, with the first impression being very important, as confirmed by social psychology. Striking the right balance of respect, openness, modesty, confidence, and restraint is key, especially since the new boss needs guidance from subordinates.

The new boss faces similar challenges, needing to hide any uncertainty while dealing with many unfamiliar faces and potential hidden motives of new employees. The intense scrutiny of the boss's initial actions magnifies the importance of early mistakes.

Neither the new boss nor the subordinates are likely to seek scientific advice in this situation, as the relevant sciences don’t encourage it. From a legal and organizational perspective, such a transition seems straightforward—a decision by the appropriate authority with clear legal consequences. The current organizational science views personnel changes as mere selection and training issues, underestimating the emotional and adjustment challenges faced by employees, assuming that an impersonal attitude toward roles is sufficient. This oversight is why Max Weber's bureaucratic model doesn't address such problems. Is this generalized attitude viable and can administrative actions be sufficiently guided by just knowing the right decisions for potential legal disputes?

Every social order can be functionally analyzed by questioning its stability and identifying the contributions to its establishment and maintenance. Stability in social life is achieved when behavior is predictable and mutual behavioral expectations are reliably met. These expectations must be generalized in various ways: they should form complex types with different execution possibilities, be repeatable, find consensus, and have normative significance even when occasionally unmet. Such generalized behavioral expectations are commonly referred to as roles.

A social order comprises numerous roles that complement, exclude, or combine with each other, often with difficulties. The interaction, separation, and conflict of roles are central to human social organization. The structural decisions made in a social order define the problems encountered during role transitions. For instance, the challenges of a leadership change depend on the structure of the organized work environment.

In less differentiated societies, roles are often combined within a single person (e.g., a family head who is also a production leader, war chief, etc.), making role succession straightforward without altering the social structure. These systems have limited differentiation due to the capacity constraints of a single person managing multiple roles. As societies develop more specialized roles, these personal role combinations are replaced by impersonal ones, requiring separation of roles (e.g., home and work, politics and leisure), resulting in diverse careers and random role combinations within individuals.

In formal organizations, a system of official, formal expectations exists, governing responsibilities, communication, and decision-making processes. These expectations, explicit and suited for documentation, provide a basic framework for orientation and membership within the organization. They act as a semantic bulwark, which offers tactical advantages by making situations impersonal and publicly acceptable.

But formal expectations alone cannot capture the full reality of an organization. Informal orders with personal roles and expectations emerge, forming smaller groups and cliques that accommodate deviations from formal norms. These informal norms and institutions can both harm and benefit the formal organization.

Formal and informal orders are relatively independent, with distinct modes of change. Informal expectations evolve slowly through experiences and consensus, while formal expectations are tied to strict identities and change through decisions, leading to discrepancies and contradictions. During leadership transitions, informal orders react emotionally, requiring time to adjust and establish new expectations.

A formal role succession doesn't automatically include informal functions of the predecessor, which are often latent and not immediately obvious. New combinations and problems arise with each leadership change, as the informal order lacks institutional continuity and explicit expectations for these functions. Communication barriers further complicate the adjustment; formal expectations dominate interactions, limit personal acquaintance and lead to a period of uncertainty until the informal order stabilizes.

In everyday life, people often attribute difficulties, problems, tensions, and disappointments to the traits and behaviors of the individuals involved;  people explain them as due to someone's ambition, selfishness, laziness, or vanity. While such explanations can be satisfying for daily use, they often overlook the influence of systemic conditions on individual behavior. Sociologists, starting notably with Marx, focus on these systemic conditions to provide deeper insights and alternative explanations.

When dealing with a highly differentiated social order, one can't avoid certain resultant problems. These structural issues are not easily resolved, and any possible solutions can't be simply integrated into existing roles. Instead, recurring patterns related to system conditions, independent of individual traits, can be studied to understand and mitigate tensions.

Considering a change in leadership, several variables come into play:

  1. Formal legitimacy is assumed, but subordinates have their own criteria for justifying a change, which can lead to nuanced judgments and varying standards for appointments versus dismissals. In public administration, political influence is often a concern, and while political appointments at high levels are accepted, lower ranks must visibly demonstrate professional qualifications.
  2. Bureaucratic settings, like state administrations, are equipped to handle leadership changes predictably; this reduces the impact of personal relationships. Formal regulations help in making transitions smoother and less personal, with roles and expectations clearly defined, which reduces informal tensions and focuses more on formal roles.
  3. Whether a new leader comes from within the organization or outside has different implications. An outsider brings new perspectives but may face resistance due to unfamiliarity, while an internal candidate is already socialized within the organization but may be constrained by existing relationships and expectations. Each scenario has its own set of advantages and challenges, influencing the organization's dynamics differently.
  4. The predecessor's role and influence also affect the transition. A successor with similar traits to the predecessor might ease the transition, while a stark contrast might complicate it by setting up conflicting expectations. Additionally, if the predecessor remains within the organization, it can impact the new leader's authority and acceptance.

No single approach to leadership transitions is universally preferable. Each comes with specific problems and advantages, requiring a differentiated analysis to identify the relevant issues and manage the transition effectively. In addition to previously discussed factors, several other elements significantly influence organizational dynamics, such as the homogeneity or division of attitudes within the organization, the participation interest of its members, and the leadership needs. The issue centers on the fact that in large, goal-specific formal organizations, leadership changes are only partially institutionalized, creating uncertainties and new orientations needs.

While such disruptions are unlikely to be permanent, they can lead to self-focused informal groups excluding the new leader; this can reduce his/her role to mere formalities. These groups may create a perfect image of diligent workers, hiding any contradictory information from the leader; he/she is communicatively isolated. This results in filtered information and decisions limited to predefined alternatives, which leads to an imbalance in actual influence compared to formal structures.

An alternative to this informal order is increased bureaucratization and formalization, in which the new leader governs through formal rules and individual accountability; this minimizes the impact of informal relationships. While feasible in smaller units, the effectiveness of this approach in large organizations is debatable.

Recent organizational research suggests the benefits of a more personalized natural action system, which emphasizes trust, prestige differences, and social sanctions. It raises the interest in generalized system control by blending monetary and personal relationship techniques. Although skepticism towards human relations approaches has grown, the question remains whether effective leadership of large systems requires the leader to engage with the informal work order, understand workplace realities, and influence this system.

The study of these informal behavior patterns is just beginning; a convergence between sociological and rational system control theories. A status based on informal functions might facilitate the management of large organizations. This offers possibilities for trustful delegation and selective information that purely formal leadership cannot achieve.

Part II: Spontaneous formation of order - The human being in administration

In safety management, we often make procedures for employees to follow. I’ve been guilty myself of thinking that just putting my new procedure on the organization’s intranet and sending a message to all employees magically made people use it. How naïve I was. I learned the hard way that cliques, collegiality, and spontaneous order not only complement formal roles, relationships, and procedures, but also support collaboration, adaptation, and decision-making.

The Hawthorne experiments from 1927 to 1932 at Western Electric challenged conventional wisdom about organizational behavior. They revealed the influential role of informal social structures alongside formal frameworks. These experiments demonstrated that employee motivation isn't simply driven by carrots and sticks; informal groups play a significant role in shaping social dynamics, communication patterns, and emotional responses within workplaces. This recognition spurred a shift towards studying the impact of these informal networks on behavior and effectiveness. Despite the insights gained from these studies, skepticism remains regarding the hopes pinned on “culture” schemes to enhance morale, productivity, or ‘safe behavior’. The Hawthorne experiments did not explain how groups adapt to complex organizational environments, especially in large organizations where structural constraints may limit their formation and function. What happens within organizations goes beyond formal relationships, roles and procedures.

Collegial behavior is important for organizational effectiveness. Its loyalty, discretion, and mutual respect are all essential for collaboration. Collegial behavior complements formal relationships, roles and procedures, without directly aligning with organizational objectives. Despite institutionalized norms, spontaneous order persists. It influences daily interactions and relationships. Daily collaboration between colleagues cultivates social bonds, which are crucial for dealing with emerging organizational expectations. Colleagues represent themselves through actions and decisions, which gradually shape deeper collegial relationships. Personal familiarity facilitates rapid understanding and effective communication, which is crucial for circumventing interpersonal sensitivities and resolving issues promptly.
Cliques and informal work groups diverge from formal norms. They often challenge organizational hierarchies. They unite individuals across ranks based on shared interests, and they form around shared dissatisfactions or tactical advantages within the organizational structure. Norms within these groups govern conduct, which shapes informal rules and manages cooperation beyond official mandates.

Successful decision-making hinges on intensive communication and informal interactions. Formal decisions alone are insufficient for dealing with complex issues; conversations encouraged by trust and a shared code of conduct are important. Informal conflict resolution methods, such as leveraging personal connections or negotiating compromises outside formal channels, mitigate tensions and ensure smoother operations.

Part III: Subvision or The Art of Managing Up

Niklas Luhmann’s work experiences led him from a hierarchical (government) work environment to an existence, at university, almost without superiors. He came to recognize that superiors not only play a protective and comforting role, but are also an important tool for implementing one's own plans and goals. Without superiors, one has to assert oneself in many relationships at the same time, whereas with a superior one can concentrate these efforts on one person.

Relationships with superiors contain diverse and previously little-researched structural variables that influence the success and meaning of dealing with them. Luhmann found it quite unfair that superiors are supported by research and training in people management, while subordinates have to get by without such help. He thought that dealing with superiors is by no means easier than dealing with subordinates and therefore deserves just as much attention and research. There is little relevant literature or empirical research on this topic, which is probably due to the fact that subordinates keep quiet about how they treat their superiors for good reasons. Luhmann’s goal was to demonstrate the potential of theoretical organizational analysis and through this provide insight into the art of influencing superiors.

Positions affect perceptions and judgments
Hierarchies have a distorting effect on judgments and perceptions. Position in the hierarchy influences how people and their environments are perceived. One example is that a president's door is perceived differently than the door of a simple employee, and one can see the loss of office in a retired secretary of state. To challenge these distorted perceptions, it helps to imagine the superior without clothes, which abstracts the hierarchy and focuses on a fundamental question of modern organizational theory: the scarcity of consciousness and the limited capacity for conscious decision-making. This limitation applies to everyone, including superiors, whose attention and time are also limited. The key point is that moving up the hierarchy does not give you any additional capacity for awareness or attention. On the contrary, the higher you go up the hierarchy, the more bottlenecks there are in terms of time and attention. Therefore, the focus of conscious decision-making tends to be lower down the hierarchy, where there is more capacity.

Goals and perspectives of subordinates
Subordinates roughly have two main goals: self-presentation and decision-influencing:
- Subordinates strive to appear as they would like to be seen in order to promote their long-term career goals and achieve positions where they can realize their ideas;
- Subordinates have specific interests, such as the interests of their department or division, sufficient decision-making time, control over critical variables and the ability to justify mistakes. They can usually only implement these interests by influencing decisions.
Luhmann poses two central questions:
1. To what extent does the pursuit of one goal also promote the other?
2. Who is the relevant audience for these strategies? Is it the superior, colleagues or one's own subordinates?
If the superior is the relevant audience for both objectives, self-presentation and decision-making influence can be integrated and pursued simultaneously. Otherwise, the integration of these goals becomes more difficult.

Power relationships between superiors and subordinates
Power does not automatically lie with the superior, but requires careful examination. Power is understood as the transfer of selection lines in which both sides make decisions and make assumptions with regard to avoidance alternatives. Both superiors and subordinates can have power:
- Supervisor power, based on the ability to formally decide conflicts and threaten dismissal.
- Power of the subordinate, based on the complexity of the decision-making situation of the superior, who relies on decision-making support en is dependent on.

The distribution of power varies from case to case and depends on the complexity and uncertainty of the superior's decision-making situation. A crucial understanding comes from the thesis that power can only be effectively exercised in the form of cooperation, not conflict. Open conflicts always imply a breakdown of power relationships, while trusting cooperation can increase power on both sides.

Two major topics remain: the presentation of important system variables that are important for the relationship between superiors and subordinates, and an analysis of the situations and their tactical options that shape these relationships and can, under certain circumstances, take on irreversible forms.

Structural variables in the relationship between superiors and subordinates
Structural variables influence the tension within the hierarchy and are important for understanding the distribution of power and the decision-making processes:
- The hierarchical level at which the system interacts with the environment is analyzed. These external relationships influence the tension between superiors and subordinates.
- Initiatives are distributed in the system and they correlate with external contacts. Initiatives come from certain levels and can be programmed or not programmed.
- Uncertainties are absorbed at different levels. Responsibilities often slide downwards, which can lead to resignation among subordinates, as decisions are made at the bottom and superiors are reduced to a mediating function.
- When subordinates start to deal with their superiors, they inevitably meet each other and have to interact with each other as colleagues. The relationship between subordinates is closely linked to their target structure.
- Regarding the duration of the relationship, different things can be expected in a long-term relationship than in a short-term relationship. Who is more mobile, the superior or the subordinate, also affects who is training whom.
These variables show the limits of consciousness and can only be fully understood through a concrete analysis of the situation.

Autonomy of situations in institutionally organized systems
Even in highly organized systems, individual situations have a certain autonomy. A comprehensive analysis of the organization is not enough to understand every individual situation.
Successful situations follow certain rules that can be identified through observation and experimentation. These rules provide starting points for subtle tactics in dealing with superiors.
It’s important to show formal respect to the superior without appearing servile. One can express disrespect respectfully, e.g. by listening with boredom. Tact is crucial, especially in situations where the manager cannot freely choose how to present himself.
Star and director roles require complex management of visible and invisible influences, especially in conferences, where the manager often acts ill-advised and has to deal with unexpected developments.

Interactions between superiors and subordinates require synchronization. Different tempos can lead to one participant digressing while the other is under pressure. The distribution of time is modifiable through preparation, with the manager determining the pace and duration of the encounters. Small gains can be achieved by complex expressions that deprive the other of time to object. For example, one can respond to a request to attend a meeting with a vague answer that delays a decision.

There are no fixed recipes for dealing with superiors. One has to be flexible and tactically clever in order to successfully exert influence and shape situations. Employees fear that deliberately manipulating superiors is dangerous and could undermine order. The problem is not loyalty to the line, but the analysis of complex issues. Diagnostic skills must be improved, for which there is more time and potential at the lower levels of the hierarchy.
The game can be played at all levels of the hierarchy, including at the very top, as long as there are superiors. As soon as the manipulation strategies become transparent, they can be played back from other levels. The system can legitimately defend itself by making those who successfully manage their superiors into superiors themselves.
Analytical skills and strategic thinking are necessary to navigate complex organizational structures and the system has mechanisms to balance and integrate such dynamics.

Luhmann, N. (2016), Der neue Chef, Berlin: Suhrkamp.