The Probation Office of the... the office agreed to an organizational
analysis of the communication dynamics within the professional staff. This
paper is a report on the... project. Specifically, the administration (Chief
and Deputy Chief Probation Officer) asked for an analysis to determine
what could be changed in the methods of communication with mid-level staff
(Supervising Probation Officers), and line staff (Probation Officers).
The Mission Statement for the project is:
There is a unique distribution of people in the office because of a
previous hiring freeze and subsequent expansion of the office. Basically
there are two groups of officers divided by age and service. The older
group (about 39% of the office) has 14 to 21 years of experience in the
office and ranges in age from 43 to 56 years old. The younger group has
from 3 months to 6 years of experience and ranges in age from 27 to 40
years old. This dichotomy is part of the underlying issues.
The Probation Office is composed of a main office and three field offices...
The organization has a horizontal hierarchical structure rather than the vertical structure of traditional law enforcement organizations. The individual probation officers report to a unit supervisor, but once they have received their assignment, they are on their own to act with little or no structural interaction with either other probation officers or their supervisor. There is some informal interaction between officers, especially among Presentence writers. As the officers complete their assignments, they are turned into their supervisor for approval. At that time, the assignments are either approved or returned with comments for additional work.
There are two basic kinds of general assignments a probation officer
completes. These are either Presentence Reports or supervision duties.
Most probation officers do not do both jobs simultaneously. They are either
assigned to one task or the other. Both jobs do entail contact with the
individual and a certain amount of field work. There is no official difference
in status relating to the type of assignment; however, there can be a personal
preference. While there is no official distinction, there is an impression
that supervision officers have less status. There is no difference in pay
scales. During their first five years, all officers are rotated through
The study includes all probation officers and the probation officer assistant.. However, many problems only seem to become dysfunctional..., where most of the probation officers work. The following analysis is a result of the interviews and questionnaires and is strictly the opinion of the author.
A. Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict
I examined several issues using relatively accepted organizational measures. The first of these are Kahn, et.al.'s Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict. On both issues the Office scores low. Role Ambiguity measures an individual's uncertainty about his responsibilities and what the individual thinks others expect from his/her on- the-job actions. It also measures a level of organizational ambiguity. The scale ranged from 1 (low ambiguity) to 5 (high ambiguity). The mean for Role Ambiguity in the office was 2.213 with a standard deviation of 0.551, suggesting a moderately low level of role ambiguity. There is a difference in Role Ambiguity among the three job classifications. Specialists have the lowest Role Ambiguity level at 1.984 with a standard deviation of 0.592. Supervisors have a Role Ambiguity of 2.104 with a standard deviation of 0.310, and probation officers have a Role Ambiguity of 2.296 with a standard deviation of 0.570.
Building a model of Role Ambiguity from the questionnaire results in these four questions accounting for about half the measured Role Ambiguity:
3) "The time limits within which my work is evaluated are reasonable." [A negative response equals a positive increase in Role Ambiguity.]
4) "Whenever we have a problem, we are supposed to go to the same person for an answer." [A positive answer here equals a positive increase in Role Ambiguity.]
The formalization index is broken down into five different scales: job codification, rule observation, rule manual, job description and specificity of job descriptions (Miller, 1983; Aiken & Hage, 1966). The job codification scale ranges from 1 (low rule codification) to 4 (high rule codification). With a mean of 2.709 and a standard deviation of 0.576, the office has a moderate to moderately-high recognized level of job codification.
The index of rule observation has a mean of 2.419 and a standard deviation of 0.845 with 1 being high enforcement and 4 equaling low rule enforcement. The office has moderate level of rule observation and enforcement.
The rule manual index has a mean of 3.841 with a standard deviation of 0.568. Ninety-five percent of the officers recognized the existence of various rule manuals. Similarly 93% of all officers acknowledge a written job description. This shows that most officers are aware of their duties and the department rules.
"Centralization is the degree to which power is concentrated in an Organization" (Miller, 1994, 409). This issue deals with the distribution of power within the organization and sets the performance and behavior requirements. For our purposes we are interested in how this power is distributed within the organization. Does the power reside in one individual, or at the other end of the continuum, does the power reside with all members? For this study Aiken and Hage's scales of Personal Participation in Decision Making and Hierarchy of Authority were used.
The first scale, Centralization of Decision Making ranges from 1 (low
participation) to 5 (high participation). Looking at the scores for each
level of "social position" the development of participation can be seen.
The data shows that as one's social position increases in the organization,
one's participation into the organization operations increases. The Hierarchy
of Authority scores range from a low of 1 to a high of 4. This represents
a limited amount of hierarchical authority prevalent throughout the organization.
D. Probation Office Issues
The last section of the questionnaire was based on issues identified as important to officers in the office. They are broken down into five areas: (1) training, (2) diversity of office function, (3) staffing, (4) special projects, and (5) job evaluations.
III. Observations and Recommendations
The questionnaire shows that Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict are not the major problem in the office. However, the questionnaire does give insight into the communications problems. These observations are taken from my interaction with the various probation officers and an interpretation of the questionnaire.
I have identified two broad problematic areas. These are workload and internal communications.
The workload issue includes a perception of favoritism. There is a notion
that favoritism exists within the office. Almost everyone asked about favoritism
acknowledges that there is at least the appearance of favoritism. Those
who admit to being the beneficiary of favoritism suggest it is due in part
to their qualifications and/or competence. Those who feel that they have
been unfairly evaluated suggest it is due to lack of training and/or development
Favoritism is related to "Special Projects" in that people who identify with being treated favorably are mostly assigned to "Special Projects." "Special Projects" are good in that it is a test bed for new ideas and can bring positive notice to the District. Part of the perceptual problem is in the staffing formula. The Administrative Office's formula for staffing at 80% of the workload means that by someone's notion the officers in the District are working at an overloaded capacity. If one then subtracts the Officers assigned to "Special Projects" the rest of the officers have their already overloaded workload increased. The problem becomes aggravated when these officers feel that they are not only unrewarded for their work, but looked at unfavorably because they do not participate in "Special Projects."
An example of a problem with "Special Projects" is presented by the demise of the intensive supervision caseload. There is concern that individual cases on intensive supervision were the worst and most problematic cases. Yet when the program disbanded these cases were assigned to general caseloads.
Probably the most important workload issue deals with Presentence Report
writing. This is a very complex problem. Officers in both the questionnaire
and interviews point to several presentence issues, rotation and training(1).
There is general confusion about the rotation requirement as specified in the office manual and the recent rotation. Everyone, within five years, must complete 30 Presentence Investigations (PSI) and a stint in supervision. Yet many officers are under the impression that the rotation policy is in suspension! There are officers who have not rotated and do not qualify with one or the other requirement.
It appears, in the recent rotation,
that those who have gone from PSI to supervision have now been saddled
with triple duty. They must complete the already assigned PSI's and start
their supervision duties while still being assigned PSI's due to the inexperience
of the new investigators.
There is a definite lack of a formal training program. The assumption is that you know the job upon entry to it. While there may be some expectation of people who come from another governmental probation agency to "know" probation, there can be no expectation that someone can write Presentence Reports with a good grasp of the Sentencing Guidelines without proper training.
While training has received a relatively good report on the questionnaire, it is important to note that those officers with high Role Ambiguity had problems with initial training. There is confusion about exactly what information is to be included in a Presentence Report and how that information is secured and verified, as well as uncertainty on the Guidelines. While the Guidelines themselves are difficult, the problem is compounded by the uncertainty of the report writing process. The office needs to determine what a Presentence Report contains and then the officers must be formally trained in the Guidelines and requirements for a proper Presentence Report, as well as the work expectations of the office.
The probation officer's job creates a great deal of paperwork. Some of this paperwork is kept in in-house files, while some work is delivered to the Court in the form of Presentence and other Reports. The major support staff function is to assist in the production of this paperwork. Yet there are problems with the support staff in the Cleveland Office. The current pool system creates an environment where there is a lack of productivity and accountability. The turnaround time on work and its quality is problematic. The support staff was beyond my scope of authority to investigate. However, since the support staff is so critical to the work of the probation officers, it is important to mention. The pool system does not function well as it currently exists. One solution might be to break the pool into smaller units. Possibly this could be done with one pool for each unit or by function. As a result of this dysfunction, the office has begun to adopt the practice of officers preparing their own Presentence Reports on their individual computers. The major problems here are that the officers are usually not well-trained typists and some lack proofreading skills.
The Automation function in the office
is in the process of placing a computer on every desk in the office. Virtually
everyone in the district who wants a computer has one. The few who have
recently requested one are in the queue. The systems are currently being
upgraded with new technology. The Automation Staff supports the officers
and provides the necessary tools for their work. The Automation Staff provides
the maintenance of the District's PACTS information system. Unfortunately,
here is where the program is behind the times. Every officer should be
able to pull up an informational database containing the latest and all
information on anybody in the District from their desk workstation. This
is the standard at many State and County offices today. Unfortunately,
this issue is out of the hands of the local Automation Staff and resides
in the Administrative Office. This part of the District's automation falls
short of current capabilities. The last comment is that all desktops should
be connected in a network for distributed mail and other resources.
B. Internal Communications
The major problem in the office appears to be the existence of two communication blockages. There is a communication blockage between the administration and the supervisors and then between the supervisors and the probation officers. This is a serious and complicated problem. There is a lot of history involved in this issue and it is not readily solved. A prime example is the recent call for District wide drug monitoring. The actual rational behind the program was not communicated by the administration to the supervisors and then on to the line officers. This lead to a degree of speculation and belief that it was the result of an arbitrary policy. The net effect was a grumbling compliance. The line officers felt that it was their job to do what was requested, but also felt that they were due a legitimate explanation. The supervisors did not provide one.
The administration believed it had communicated the reasons to the supervisors, but the supervisors did not receive the message and, therefore, could not pass the information on. The blame here is shared equally. The administration needs to transmit messages in a way that is receivable. Then they must ascertain that it has been properly received. The supervisors must be interested in receiving the message and must check to determine if it was received as sent. The problem appears to be history. There is some sentiment on the part of both parties that one side does not want the message sent and the other side does not want the message received. Both groups must try to overcome this dysfunctional operating procedure. At the same time, the line officers must press their supervisors for legitimate answers. If the supervisors do not have the answers, they must go back and get them.
A component in the model of Role Ambiguity is the question, "Whenever we have a problem we are supposed to go to the same person for an answer." A positive answer equals a positive increase in Role Ambiguity. This enforces the notion of the communications blockage between the officers and their supervisors. The response in the model suggests that the officers are not getting the information in a useful form, and this lack of communication increases the uncertainty factor in the officers.
Another communication problem is the message sent. There appears to be a discrepancy between some messages and the general policies in the Probation Office Handbook. The Handbook sets many operating standards and policies. Yet, there are messages sent that contradict the Handbook. This is problematic and causes Role Ambiguity in the officers. Both the administration and the supervisors need to check each other to ensure operating policies are in line with the Handbook.
Over the last twelve weeks, I have had the opportunity to observe, question, and interact with members of the office. My general impression is that the history of the last Chief and the transition to the current Chief has left the older officers in a state of disorientation. They have seen the office environment and to some extent the foundations of their profession forever changed. The newer officers were caught up in this significant climate of organizational change within the office. The short term effect was a dysfunctional environment. That appears to have passed. The office has completed its metamorphosis and now reflects the type of organization that the Chief envisions. It is important when dealing with professionals in a professional work place to not deal with individuals based on personality. Yet it is essential to remember that personality cannot be ignored for we are all feeling individuals.
While there are problems in the District, these problems are not fatal! The working conditions are pleasant. Even those with heavier workloads "survive" at a reasonably high level. In reality, this is a good, and for the type of job in this area, well-paid place to work. One must be careful, though, as perceptions eventually merge into and become reality.
ROLE AMBIGUITY AND ROLE CONFLICT
Much of the research on stress overemphasizes the psychological level of analysis. This misplaced focus may divert attention from the importance of the organizational setting (Handy, 1988). Bacharach, et al., (1986) suggest that stress is the resultant application of many organizational components as opposed to the physiological differences of the individuals. The effects of stress are exacerbated when people work in either extremely loosely or tightly structured organizations with the resulting rules and regulations that are imposed. These organizational dysfunctions create an undesirable work environment. Among those elements considered "dominant" job stressors are: role conflict, role ambiguity, organizational reward inequity, and lack of participation in decision making (Martin, 1984). Most reactions to role conflict are "dysfunctional for the organization . . . and self-defeating for the person . . ." (Kahn, et al., 1964, 65).
Role conflict can arise from three somewhat differing sources. The first two are internal to the organization and the third is external. The first occurs when successful completion of the assigned job function requires action outside the allowable procedures, yet established procedures must be followed and not broken. Second, is the conflicting job expectations placed on an individual by different groups or individuals within the organization. Third is the conflict that arises from expected job functions and beliefs or memberships in organizations outside the work group (Kahn, et al., 1965).
Role conflict is often manifested in "overload." Overload occurs when a conflict is perceived between appropriate tasks in setting priorities. Again, the usual response to role conflict is withdrawal. To the individual, the consequences of role conflict and ambiguity are similar; "low job satisfaction, low self-confidence, [and] a high sense of futility . . ." (Kahn, et al., 1964, 380). Conflict can also appear as a result of a clash between public roles and private ideals. This conflict often leads to poor organizational performance (Bernard & White, 1986). However, Kahn states that role conflict and ambiguity are "independent sources of stress; either or both of them may be present in any given role" (1964, 89).
Role ambiguity is increased by the lack of availability of a clear, concise, and successful communication of the information needed for a person to complete the assigned tasks. Examples of the required information include, "rights, duties and responsibilities of the office." Along with the knowledge of what actions will discharge the "responsibilities of office and how these activities can best be performed" (Kahn, et al., 1964, 22). Conflicting information of this sort also increases role ambiguity.
While life itself has much ambiguity, and we cannot predict many outcomes or personal events, role ambiguity has many of the same emotional results as role conflict. "Ambiguity leads to increased emotional tension and to decreased satisfaction with one's job. It also contributes significantly to a sense of futility and to a loss of self-confidence" (Kahn, et al., 1964, 85). Kahn (1964) points out that contributing to the sense of self-confidence is the esteem with which one is viewed with by his co-workers. Role ambiguity has varying effects on personal relations. In general, maintaining close relations with co-workers in ambiguous situations is difficult. Thus, the higher the ambiguity level, the further apart personal distance becomes which makes communications even harder (Van Sell et al., 1981). In turn, this leads to a spiraling increase in ambiguity.
While it can be dangerous to view an organization as a type instead of a system of variables (Stogdill, 1971; Udy, 1959); organizational "formalization" is used as a variable representing the amount of reliance placed on rules, regulations and enforcement to obtain the behavior the organization prefers. Formalization is "the degree of work standardization and the amount of deviation that is allowed from standards. . . [a] high degree of formalization implies not only a preponderance of rules defining jobs and specifying what is to be done, but also the enforcement of those rules" (Aiken and Hage, 1966, 499).
Aiken and Hage cite studies reinforcing their ideas that show: 1) a public organization with "an almost obsessive reliance on routines and procedures" has a great deal of worker dissatisfaction and little employee cohesion; 2) an Air Force tracking station with "great emphasis on rules" where the employees felt their work was "meaningless;" and 3) a situation where supervisors' increased pressure resulted in a decline in morale. The lack of time or autonomy, or just the perceived lack of control over how one operates and performs the job is a stressor (Hall, 1986). Yet, Bamber, Snowball and Tubbs (1989) found that senior professionals perceived less stress in structured organizations than those in unstructured organizations. This supports the work by Podsakoff, Williams and Todor (1986) which holds that formalization of work rules has the ability to reduce stress in both professional and non-professional workers. They go on to suggest that the more structured or formal the rules, the higher the level of commitment to the organization.
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and role conflict, are undesirable and that organizational dysfunction
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1971). The research does not make the connection between notions of productivity,
cohesiveness, and morale on the one hand and stress on the other. However,
morale is related to the development of stress as defined in the research.
Stogdill defines the factors that make up morale as:
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1. Refer back to the model of Role Ambiguity on pp 4-5 and the discussion of Probation Office Issues on pp 7-8.