Is Your Organisation Taking a Unitary or Pluralist Stance?

In keeping with basic concepts of motivation theory, employees are more likely to provide greater effort if they are responsible for their work and a feeling of achievement from their work. One of the ways to achieve this is by job enrichment. One method of job enrichment is to move responsibility for some decision-making from managers and supervisors to more junior employees. This is known as a vertical job loading factor and is designed to improve motivation. Employee empowerment became popular in the 1990s and this too consists of devolving the responsibility for decision-making through all levels of the organisation.

The fact that we can talk about decision-making being devolved implies that decision-making lay elsewhere before it was devolved. Traditionally, owners and managers have regarded the right to make decisions as being solely theirs. In Taylor’s concept of ‘scientific management’, managers were responsible for planning and controlling the work and giving orders, while other employees were meant, simply, to carry out these orders.

Later theories of motivation, such as those of Herzberg, have moved away from the concept of money as being the only motivating factor for employees with a growing acceptance of the fact that people look for responsibility, achievement and a sense of autonomy at work. The ability or willingness of managers to share decision-making with employees below them in the organisation’s hierarchical structure will be very much influenced by those managers’ general attitudes towards the management–employee relationship. The two major philosophical stances, unitarism and pluralism, and another important concept, partnership, have become the focus of debate since the late 1990s. Recent and ongoing legal developments emanating from the European Union have also meant that there is a heightened need to address employees’ rights. As a result of Brexit, the employment relationship will, undoubtedly, change but initially, at least, it seems that employees’ rights, some of which emanated in the EU, will be transposed into UK law.

The type of relationship that will develop between the employer, as represented by managers, and employee, and the techniques that are used to regulate this rela- tionship, are influenced by the beliefs of the employer. Therefore, a unitary stance is likely to result in a workplace culture that is very different from an organisation that follows a pluralist stance.

The unitary perspective

Unitarists believe that all members of an organisation share the same interests, accept the organisation’s goals and direct all their efforts towards the achievement of these goals. This implies that there is no conflict in such organisations and, if conflict were to arise, it would be because of some misunderstanding concerning the organisation’s goals or to deliberate trouble-making on the part of an individual. The unitarist stance also implies that the leadership of the organisation has decided what the goals are, and there is an expectation that everyone in the organisation will accept and seek to achieve these goals. Unitarist organisations, therefore, depend on strong, top-down leadership and are likely to purposefully recruit like-minded people. The cornerstone of this philosophical stance is the belief that there is a common goal and that everyone will direct their efforts towards the achievement of this goal. The unitary perspective views organisations as having one source of authority and focus of loyalty, a vision of what an industry should be like contend that a unitary orientation prioritises shareholder return and marketisation at the expense of more sustainable and socially-embedded practices, a characteristic of a pluralist perspective. Where the interests of shareholders and other stakeholders, such as employees, are in conflict, the unitary perspective would view managers’ responsibility as to further the inter- ests of shareholders. The unitary perspective suggests that a set of ‘high performance’ or ‘high commitment’ HR practices will have the same effect, irrespective of the type of employee or the context.

The pluralist perspective

Pluralists, on the other hand, believe that, in any organisation, there will be a range of interests among the members. One example of this concerns pay versus profit. Employees are likely to be interested in increasing the pay they receive for work they do, whereas owners and managers will likely be concerned with increasing profits. This is a clear example of different objectives or a plurality of interests between dif- ferent groups of people in the workplace and this means that conflicts are likely to arise as the various parties pursue their interests. Pluralists accept that this is natural and needs to be managed. These conflicts should be managed in such a way that they do not disrupt the effective running of the organisation, or even so that they potentially contribute to its success. The pluralist perspective views organisations as being made up of groups whose interests may coincide or diverge (resulting in conflict), with rival sources of attachment and leadership. The pluralist approach to employment relations considers that employees and their representatives have legitimate interests and the acceptance of this idea will allow for a fairer nd more efficient employment system.