Social Microenvironments: Concept and Application

The term “micro-environment” is typically used in biology, particularly plant biology.  It references the concept of a small environment which provides unique growing conditions, differentiated from a larger surrounding environment. In the setting of biology the term is often hyphenated (micro-environment).  But here we won’t hyphenate it.  (You’ll learn why later.)

In biology an example is an oasis.  In the midst of an arid desert a lush, verdent area may exist where water arises from a spring or passes in a river.  The growing conditions in the wet zone are entirely different from the surrounding area.  For example, deep in the arid desert of northern Arizona – where the barren rock of the Grand Canyon bakes in summer’s unrelenting sun – there are ferns.  They grow in the tiny microclimate of mist-saturated air at the base of Havasu falls deep in the Havasupai Canyon (SEE).

The concept of a biological micro-environment may be applied to a social context as well.  Just as the conditions of a biological micro-environment feed back on on the life existing there – encouraging growth, or retarding it – social contexts may feed back on the behaviors of people – encouraging growth of one set of behaviors, retarding others.  The concept may be extended further to imply the idea of the whole set of feedback systems which may act on a person to encourage or retard any given set of behaviors.  In this concept we are not specifically referencing a geographical environment, nor are we specifically and independently referencing the physical size of the environment.  Thus “micro-environment” doesn’t really encompass the whole idea.  Rather, the concept we are after is a term for the collective group of feedback systems that surround an individual (or group of individuals) and that act to encourage growth or retard growth of specific behaviors.  A useful term for this concept is social microenvironment.

A social microenvironment is “micro” because it focuses on a specific individual or a small set of individuals who are similar.  But, the geography of a social microenvironment may be large.  For example, a government may pass laws thousands of miles away from a particular citizen; yet, it is expected that the citizen will modify his/her behavior in response to those laws.  Similarly, edicts in a multinational corporation may come literally from half way around the world to a particular worker who is expected to comply.

The key to a social microenvironment is behavioral regulation.  Within a social microenvironment exists the collection of feedback systems which take an active role in regulating the behavior of the individual or small group.  Influences which are “right next door” to an individual and yet which do not provide influential feedback to regulate behavior are not part of the social microenvironment of that individual.

The concept of social microenvironments is powerful.  It is a foundation for examining how elements of a surrounding geographic or organizational environment are actually influential in modifying behavior of selected individuals.  Further, the power of any given influence may be compared to others to determine how an individual or group is likely to respond to change.

Because of the complexity of human motivation, predictions regarding response patterns may be more accurate across groups than for specific individuals.  Variables unique to specific individuals may tend to “drop out of the equation” across a group.  In this context, a group is identified as a collection of people who share similar circumstance rendering them responsive in similar ways.  So, for example, teachers and students will respond differently, yet within each group similar social microenvironments may predict similar response patterns. Doctors and nurses may be expected to respond differently in some circumstances, or similarly in others.  Doctors and lawyers will be more different.

Within an organization it is possible to do a “microenvironment analysis” – an analysis of human feedback factors which may act upon one group versus another (for example, managers versus front-line personnel).  Via such analysis leadership may gain greater understanding of how groups may respond, and thus how anticipated/desired change may be accepted or rejected.  Hypotheses regarding which feedback factors are most important to a group may also be testable across the group, thus allowing more rigorous science to enter the arena of response prediction.

Throughout LimbicZen exists an abiding interest in helping individuals and groups of individuals to adapt successfully to needed change.  The concept of social microenvironments is one of the tools which may applied to determine what is likely to work, and what isn’t.

2 thoughts on “Social Microenvironments: Concept and Application

  1. John, I would be very interested to see how you would intend to practically apply the concept of social micro-environments as a tool.
    I know that within behavioural change best practice it is common to recognised different ‘target audiences’ which I think would be classified as your social micro environments. How would you approach be different in getting to grips with helping people change?

  2. Hi Craig,
    There are shorter and longer answers. I’m glad you asked the question. For the moment I’ll give you the shorter answer.

    In our Modify Motion software ( we have incorporated a simplified version of a social microenvironment analysis wherein change managers are asked to appraise groups who will implement change according to whether they are likely to embrace or resist proposed changes. (Our goal was to bring the tool to bear while keeping the software learning process simple.) To assess each group, the managers consider (within the software) a list of common factors which tend to make new situations appealing or unappealing. The list (which is flexible and can be adapted) is loosely based on the factors delineated by Herzberg in his work on antecedents of job satisfaction. To be sure, managers may not always know precisely which factors will be most influential to groups of change implementers (and they certainly may mis-guess in regard to specific individuals). However, that is not a problem. Where managers are not reasonably sure how change implementers may respond they can do the most straight-forward thing: ask them (and we have a system for that too). In addition, the very process of trying to assess how implementers may respond encourages managers to become more insightful into those they are calling to action. Still further, other tools in our software provide additional ways of determining if the assessment has been accurate or not. So, by a sophisticated but simple approach leaders are called upon to understand those they lead – to anticipate how they might respond to planned change by looking at factors which will feed-back upon the implementers during change, influencing their behavior during change. The system is also heuristic. As dedicated change managers work with implementing groups (e.g. line workers versus supervisors in a manufacturing plant, or nurses versus doctors in a hospital) their recurrent experience with the group dynamics will improve their ability to predict. Thus potential resistance problems can be anticipated and addressed, then tracked for further response.

    Our goal has been to bring powerful tools to bear while not making them powerfully complex. However, in some situations greater complexity is required (such as during transformational change within a large organization). In those circumstances the software becomes not only a tool of the company/organization but also a tool of consulting change managers – who work in greater depth during face-to-face contact and customized implementations.

    There are even longer answers where the feedback systems themselves are modified to change the sum of the microenvironments for the change implementers. But, all of that is beyond what can/should be discussed here.

    I hope this gives you some useful insight.

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