Poster Paper: Public Organization Adaptation to Extreme Events: Connecting Managerial Cognition to Institutions

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Fengxiu Zhang, Arizona State University

Public organizations are susceptible and vulnerable to an advancing list of natural and man-made extreme events, ranging from extreme weather, critical infrastructure collapse, ecological crisis to technological breakdowns (Boin & Lodge, 2016; Tierney, 2014). Despite the progress made in emergency and crisis management, those approaches are increasingly found wanting in dealing with the unexpected and heterogenous challenges associated with extreme events (Cigler, 2007; Comfort et al., 2012). A common perspective is that traditional emergency and crisis management needs to be complemented with planned adaptation to reduce organizational vulnerability and foster resilience against a wider range of external shocks (Boin & Van Eeten, 2013; McEntire, 2005; Zhang, Welch, & Miao, 2018).

A central and pervasive debate around adaptation is whether adaptation is environmentally or managerially derived. The study argues that both environmental constraints and managerial choices are necessary to offer a more comprehensive explication of organizational adaptation to the growing trend of extreme events.

Specifically, the study connects managerial cognition to institutions by integrating theories of institutionalism, power and organizational change. It identifies two cognitive conditions for organization adaptation to occur: 1) valence describes the extent to which managers think adaptation is needed or required for problem solving; 2) perceived risk comprises managers’ appraisal of the potential for harmful impacts from the development in their external environment. Coercive and normative institutions affect managerial cognition through different forms of power —coercive institutions predict perceived valence through force and domination, while normative institutions determine risk perception through influence and discipline (Fleming & Spicer, 2014; Lawrence et al., 2001).

The study hypothesizes that managers perceive a higher level of valence associated with adaptation when 1) they are subject to intervention from higher authorities (i.e. force) to respond more effectively to extreme events and 2) they face stricter technological constraints or professional standards (i.e. domination). Managers are also more able to perceive the inherent risks when 1) there are actors advocating for reframing of issues that shapes their cognitive schema and leads to new interpretations of the environment (i.e. influence); and 2) they or their organization are embedded in disciplinary systems such as field-level associations with expertise and forward thinking on extreme events issues (i.e. discipline). It further hypothesizes that higher levels of perceived valence and risk perception can positively predict organizational adaptation.

To test the hypotheses, the study applies structural equation modeling using a unique dataset that includes two waves of data from a national survey of senior managers in the 200 U.S. largest transit agencies conducted in 2016 and 2018 and merged institutional data from the National Transit Database and U.S. Census. The study contributes to the literature in several ways. It integrates institutional and socio-cognitive theories to revise the dichotomization of managers and their embedded environment. Consideration of dual power dynamics - domination and force, and influence and discipline – provides insights into how institutions affect manager cognitions necessary for adaptation. It begins to investigate why organizations purposefully adapt to extreme conditions even when they have not experienced crises or disasters.