Artifact: Note on Mimetic Influence and the Pandemic
I have never fully subscribed to the idea that “hindsight is 20/20.” Too often we use the phrase to offset poor planning or bad decision-making. It seems to abdicate a sense of responsibility or ownership, and I have often hoped organizational leaders would lean away from it in favor of growth or situational learning.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought to light a realization for me about this, with relation to the notion of mimetic influence.
Conrad and Poole (2012) discuss mimetic influence, coercive influence, and normative influence as the three types of institutional influence. Different from the latter two in their approach to adapt and change by direct or indirect force, through mimetic influence “Organizations often seek to be like exemplary organizations of the same type by imitating them” (p. 22). Like the name implies, organizations mimic others, though I find the paradox is the reality that this influence “…is strongest in situations with high uncertainty, when organizations may not be able to determine the likely consequence of their actions well enough to make a rational decision” (p. 23).
The connection to COVID-19 relates to my work in nonprofits. My former organization — like countless other NPOs during the pandemic — made the challenging decision to transition our largest annual event to be a virtual experience. Our decision to do so came in early March 2020.
In my own hindsight, the seventh principle of systems thinking inspired the decision to do so, namely that “Systems must constantly learn and renew themselves,” in some cases doing so “by making sure to bring in fresh, new people and technology” (p. 39). Our decision to go virtual with our event was more logical than it was reactive, since the online medium was a perfect delivery method for our content. We were unable to gather 2,000 people together in person, so we took a very Ignatian approach after experiencing deconstruction — whereby we realized “the old way” was no longer possible.
The frame of mimetic influence reminds me of many experiences in my career. For instance, I chair the board for a small theater company in Houston, and during the social unrest of spring 2020 (in response to George Floyd’s murder) we watched the unrest happening around the country. Our staff leadership wished to mimic what other progressive nonprofit organizations were doing — like posting links to donations for black rights causes. In my leadership role, I suggested we pause and take stock of the highly uncertain situation.
Instead, I suggested we put ourselves in our audiences’ shoes; rather than direct people simply to donate, I proposed we build an arsenal of informative, educational resources to share so people could get involved at their own speed. For instance, not everyone will be in a financial place to donate, but they all can read about civil rights and share those messages with their personal networks.
The organizational communication coursework and conversations played a major part in being able to make reality-based connections to very real, very important experiences.
Conrad, C. R. & Poole, M. S. (2012). Strategic organizational communication in a global economy. Wiley-Blackwell.