Organizational Rules and Cognitive Uncertainty Among Public Professionals: A Daily Diary Study

Published date01 December 2021
AuthorSuzan van der Pas,Joris van der Voet,Bernard Bernards,Sandra Groeneveld
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2021, Vol. 41(4) 792 –813
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X20943932
Organizational Rules and
Cognitive Uncertainty Among
Public Professionals: A Daily
Diary Study
Bernard Bernards1, Joris van der Voet1,
Suzan van der Pas2, and Sandra Groeneveld1
Although public management and human resource management research has
extensively investigated the motivational effects of organizational rules, the original
utility of organizational rules—uncertainty reduction—has remained overlooked.
This study takes a cognitive perspective by examining how organizational rules
relate to uncertainty experiences of public professionals. In this study, we provide
a dynamic perspective on the relationship between organizational rules and
uncertainty through a 2-week daily online diary study among 65 public professionals
in the Netherlands. The results indicate that the amount and consistency of rules
are related to professionals’ daily uncertainty experiences. Moreover, within-person
experiences of rules and uncertainty are highly variable over time. We argue that
a cognitive perspective of uncertainty reduction can broaden our understanding of
the consequences of organizational rules in managing people, and that the dynamic
nature of organizational rule experiences cannot be a mere footnote in future public
administration and human resource management research.
diary study, cognitive uncertainty, rule characteristics, formalization, red tape,
green tape
Clear and consistent rules are an important part of managing people in public organi-
zations, but from the outset, research on bureaucracy and organizational rules has been
1Leiden University, The Hague, The Netherlands
2University of Applied Sciences Leiden and Leiden University, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Bernard Bernards, Leiden University, Turfmarkt 99, The Hague 2511DP, The Netherlands.
943932ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X20943932Review of Public Personnel AdministrationBernards et al.
Bernards et al. 793
Janus-faced (Gouldner, 1955), with one branch of research focused on the technical
functionality of rules, and another on the negative, coercive aspects of rules (Adler &
Borys, 1996; Van Loon et al., 2016). The positive view of bureaucratic organizations
emphasizes that organizational rules ensure precision, reliability, calculability, and
accountability through the standardization of work (Gajduschek, 2003). Organizations
that achieve standardization through rules are commonly referred to as bureaucracies
(Mintzberg, 1979). By ensuring highly predictable processes and outputs, uncertainty
reduction is the central aim of the bureaucratic organizational form (Gajduschek,
2003). The negative view on bureaucracy and organizational rules emphasizes the
coercive and dehumanizing aspects of rules. In this view, rules stifle creativity of
employees, demotivate them and are only in place to enforce employee’s compliance
(Adler & Borys, 1996). For public HRM scholars and practitioners, identifying the
right balance of rules to reduce uncertainty but not stifle creativity and motivation thus
remains a continuing challenge.
In the public administration literature, the negative view on organizational rules
mostly dominates. Researchers devote much attention to the concept of red tape, defined
as “rules, regulations, and procedures that remain in force and entail a compliance bur-
den for the organization, but have no efficacy for the rules’ functional object” (Bozeman,
1993, p. 283) and, more recently, to the concept of administrative burdens (Herd &
Moynihan, 2019). The negative consequences of organizational rules for employees
have been exclusively examined through the lens of motivational theories. For instance,
organizational rules may decrease employees’ autonomy or crowd-out intrinsic motiva-
tion (Jacobsen & Jakobsen, 2018). Recently, a number of studies have paid attention to
the beneficial effects of organizational rules, focusing on the concept of green tape
(DeHart-Davis, 2017). However, also in these studies, motivational theories are the key
mechanism through which the effects of rules on employees are studied. For instance,
rules that provide the optimal amount of control are found to increase job satisfaction by
altering an employee’s sense of self-determination (DeHart-Davis et al., 2014).
The exclusive focus on the motivational effects of organizational rules on employ-
ees overlooks the original purpose through which rules are intended to affect employ-
ees: uncertainty reduction (Weber, 1972 [1922]; see Gajduschek, 2003, pp. 714–716).
In this article, we therefore aim to add to the literature on organizational rules by tak-
ing a cognitive perspective on rules and examining the reduction of cognitive uncer-
tainty for employees as an alternative mechanism through which organizational rules
affect public professionals. Under conditions of bounded rationality, human cognition
is seen as limited due to the incomplete knowledge of situations and of behavioral
alternatives (Simon, 1970). Rules then provide a heuristic or mental shortcut in deci-
sion-making and are thus expected to reduce cognitive uncertainty (see also Raaphorst,
2018). We view organizational rules as positive when they reduce cognitive uncer-
tainty among professionals and as negative when they fail to reduce or even contribute
to cognitive uncertainty.
In order to get a better understanding of how rules may contribute to uncertainty
reduction, this article focuses on the characteristics of rules that are potentially associ-
ated with uncertainty reduction. Our central research question is: To what extent are

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