Presentation Details

The Fourth International Conference on Knowledge, Culture and Change in Organisations

The Effects of the Supervisor-Staff Relationship on Defensive Behaviors and Critical Discussions in Organizations: A Case Study of a Large U.S. Hospital

Dr. Leah Ritchie.

Many organizations have a short life because they are too inflexible to react to changing conditions that characterize today’s highly unpredictable global economy. This inflexibility is often caused by management’s inability or unwillingness to change the status quo or even to challenge widely held assumptions about their internal corporate culture and the external business environment.

Unfortunately, most employees avoid critical discussion, because it poses ego and territorial threats. In fact, individuals (often inadvertently), create a defensive organizational climate that discourages critical thought and discussion despite the beneficial effects these behaviors have been shown to have (organizations like Honda and General Electric have realized good results from institutionalized critical discussion sessions).

This case study of a U.S. hospital supports the hypothesis that norms of politeness and defensiveness curtail critical discussion. Specifically, results showed a statistically significant negative relationship between perceived defensiveness and perceived support for critical inquiry. However, further analysis showed that positive and open communication with one’s immediate supervisor can increase one’s willingness to engage in critical inquiry despite its inherent political risks.

These preliminary results illustrate the need to further investigate the role that communication behaviors, organizational culture, and supervisor-staff relations play in creating norms that are both beneficial and deleterious to organizations, particularly in the area of critical discussion. Cultural differences related to these variables also need to be explored.


Dr. Leah Ritchie  (United States)
Assistant Professor
Management Department
Salem State College

I have a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Maryland (U.S.A.) I currently specialize in organizational communication and teach management, organizational behavior, and leadership both at the undergraduate and graduate level at Salem State College (U.S.A.). My research interests and consulting practice focus on creating effective communication behaviors and promoting organizational democracy in the workplace. My most recent project addressed the effects of unequal power distribution in a non-profit organization. Results of this project will be published as a book chapter in Frey and Caragee (Eds.) (2004), Communication Activism.

  • Communication
  • Assumption Testing
  • Critical Discussion
  • Superior-Subordinate Relationships

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)