Dissertation Abstract

Building Consensus: Workplace Myth-Building as a Unifying Rhetorical Strategy

Dissertation Abstract

In my dissertation, I seek to understand how business leaders use rhetorical myth to persuade their employees to accept technological changes. The decision to update or change technologies can be difficult and time-consuming. The people making decisions in the organization must be able not only to choose the best technological solution, but also sell that solution to the other people in the workplace by building support, addressing concerns, and overcoming resistance through careful use of rhetorical strategies. A rhetorical myth—an idealized narrative of the past, present, and future of the organization or the project—can unify employees within a communal or organizational identity under common goals.

To learn more about rhetorical myth in the workplace, I conducted an IRB-approved ethnographic study of the Printing Services Department at Iowa State University from November 2009 to May 2013. In 2009 the department was beginning a process to upgrade its print management system (PMS), the central technology of the department. The PMS is a software and hardware package that mediates internal and external communication, coordinates work schedules, and provides employees an interface to interact with essential machinery. Consequently, changing the PMS involves many changes for employees and management throughout the department. My study includes:

  • Observations of committee meetings
  • Interviews with employees and administration
  • Ethnographic field notes
  • Analyses of various written texts, including memos, emails, proposals, and purchase orders

In my research, I  observed the rhetorical construction of a rhetorical myth surrounding the procurement of the new PMS. I  observed the myth develop in a series of distinct stages. Although I describe my observations in the context of the rhetorical myth at Printing Services, I believe these stages can be generalizable to most rhetorical myths.

  1. The creation or formation stage, where managers build the rhetorical myth through strategic conversations and carefully worded promises.
  2. The acceptance and reification stage, where employees accept and internalize the rhetorical myth and reference the ideas of the rhetorical myth in private discussions, public meetings, and informal and formal documents.
  3. The re-formation or re-creation stage, where managers respond to dissent and challenges with reassurances and adjustments to the rhetorical myth.

These stages provide an extended view of the rhetorical myth, which although it is focused on a single project, incorporates ideas about Printing Services’ history and destiny to provide an overarching rhetorical strategy to guide employees toward consensus. In my dissertation project, I examined rhetorical myth and its application in a workplace setting. Drawing on published studies of religious, societal, and political myths, combined with studies on effecting change and building unity, I use my case study at Printing Services to show that myth can be a powerful persuasive tool to build consensus within organizations. My dissertation includes five chapters. In the first chapter, I create a working definition of rhetorical myth in the workplace. In chapter two, I examine how scholars in rhetorical studies and business communication have approached the idea of myth. In chapter three, I detail my methodology for conducting my case study at Printing Services. In chapter four, I describe the findings of my study to show how the rhetorical myth has been developed to build consensus throughout the purchase and implementation of the new PMS. In chapter five, I discuss how myth can function as a powerful rhetorical tool for building and maintaining consensus in any workplace, including the implications and dangers of using myth.