Subjective models focus on individuals within organizations rather than the total institution or its subunits. These perspectives suggest that each person has a subjective and selective perception of the organization. Events and situations have different meanings for the various participants in institutions. Organizations are portrayed as complex units, which reflect the numerous meanings and perceptions of all the people within them. Organizations are social constructions in the sense that they emerge from the interaction of their participants. They are manifestations of the values and beliefs of individuals rather than the concrete realities presented in formal models (Bush, 2003):
Subjective models assume that organizations are the creations of the people within them. Participants are thought to interpret situations in different ways and these individual perceptions are derived from their background and values. Organizations have different meanings for each of their members and exist only in the experience of those members. (p. 113)
Subjective models became prominent in educational management as a result of the work of Thomas Greenfield in the 1970s and 1980s. Greenfield was concerned about several aspects of systems theory, which he regarded as the dominant model of educational organizations. He argues that systems theory is “bad theory” and criticizes its focus on the institution as a concrete reality (Greenfield, 1973):
Most theories of organisation grossly simplify the nature of the reality with which they deal. The drive to see the organisation as a single kind of entity with a life of its own apart from the perceptions and beliefs of those involved in it blinds us to its complexity and the variety of organisations people create around themselves. (p. 571)
Subjective models have the following major features:
- They focus on the beliefs and perceptions of individual members of organizations rather than the institutional level or interest groups. The focus on individuals rather than the organization is a fundamental difference between subjective and formal models, and creates what Hodgkinson (1993) regards as an unbridgeable divide. “A fact can never entail a value, and an individual can never become a collective” (p. xii).
- Subjective models are concerned with the meanings placed on events by people within organizations. The focus is on the individual interpretation of behaviour rather than the situations and actions themselves. “Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience” (Bolman & Deal, 1991, p. 244).
- The different meanings placed on situations by the various participants are products of their values, background and experience. So the interpretation of events depends on the beliefs held by each member of the organization. Greenfield (1979) asserts that formal theories make the mistake of treating the meanings of leaders as if they were the objective realities of the organization. “Too frequently in the past, organisation and administrative theory has . . . taken sides in the ideological battles of social process and presented as `theory”' (p. 103) , the views of a dominating set of values, the views of rulers, elites, and their administrators.
- Subjective models treat structure as a product of human interaction rather than something that is fixed or predetermined. The organization charts, which are characteristic of formal models, are regarded as fictions in that they cannot predict the behaviour of individuals. Subjective approaches move the emphasis away from structure towards a consideration of behaviour and process. Individual behaviour is thought to reflect the personal qualities and aspirations of the participants rather than the formal roles they occupy. “Organisations exist to serve human needs, rather than the reverse” (Bolman & Deal, 1991, p. 121).
- Subjective approaches emphasize the significance of individual purposes and deny the existence of organizational goals. Greenfield (1973) asks “What is an organisation that it can have such a thing as a goal?” (p. 553). The view that organizations are simply the product of the interaction of their members leads naturally to the assumption that objectives are individual, not organizational (Bush, 2003, p. 114-118).