Assigning work responsibilities in meetings

Jan Svennevig

University of Oslo, Norway

TP164: Forms of social organization in meeting talk

A central task of a manager is to assign work responsibilities to subordinates. This paper investigates linguistic and sequential practices used for doing this in meetings. The data comes from management meetings in subsidiaries of a Norwegian paint manufacturer, located in Malaysia, Dubai and Spain. The Managing Directors are Scandinavian executives, whereas the other participants are mainly local middle managers.

In some cases, responsibility for a work-related task is assigned or taken on in a single, independent action. For instance, a manager may assign a task by means of an unequivocal request, or a commitment to future action may be made unilaterally by a subordinate. However, in many cases responsibilities are negotiated and assumed in an incremental, collaborative manner, involving actions by both parties. The current paper describes the sequential practices used by managers for inviting commitments and indirectly imposing responsibilities on subordinates without performing overt requests. One of the key resources for doing this is formulations (Heritage and Watson 1979), by which managers strategically paraphrase the subordinates’ utterances in a way that commits them to certain courses of action. Such formulations may be used to construe a work assignment as volunteered rather than imposed, and as a joint decision rather than a unilateral one.

The practices at the micro-level of interaction are discussed in light of the macro-level of social structures involving organizational roles and responsibilities. Especially, the forms of administering responsibilities are analyzed for how they index various degrees of entitlement and authority. It is argued that the consensual and collaborative form of assigning tasks may be related to the relatively low status difference between the interlocutors (the “subordinates” being themselves managers) or to a (Scandinavian?) egalitarian management philosophy.

Session: Themed Panel (part 1)
Forms of social organization in meeting talk
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 06