NCA Inside & Out

Shawn D. Long

5 Questions with Shawn D. Long

May 6, 2020

Shawn D. Long is a Professor of Communication and Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. Long researches organizational communication, organizational dialogue, virtual work, diversity communication, virtual-team assimilation and socialization, health communication, and qualitative methods associated with the study of organizational culture and symbolism.

1. Some of your research has focused on workers’ sense of belonging when they telework or telecommute. What did your research find?

The research is pretty fascinating, but also intuitive. Humans are social beings and many individuals’ self-worth and identity are strongly connected with their professional identity. I found that virtual workers suffer from chronic loneliness, perceived isolation from their face-to-face co-workers, alienation from their work product due to the distance from the final product, and a perception that there is a lack of vertical social mobility due to their virtual work status. The informal organization is equally or more powerful than the formal organization; when individuals feel that their informal connections are lost and their worth is solely related to their task-related “selves,” instead of their holistic “selves,” then their respective sense of belonging is compromised.  

The most successful virtual workers are those who seek out and create a sense of belonging with the organization and its members, both formally and informally. Unfortunately, organizations historically have not done a great job of supporting their virtual workers beyond task-related support. Organizations made this sense of belonging more difficult by not providing physical space to work as an option, not including virtual workers in social events, and keeping virtual workers out of the formal and informal communication loop. Organizations unwittingly created an informal organizational caste system that marginalized virtual workers in favor of their face-to-face counterparts. It’s natural for us to share informal communication—including gossip—over lunch, in the hallway, or at the water cooler.  This becomes more complicated with a virtual work environment, as there are legal, personnel, and social implications associated with leaving a “virtual trail” of informal communication. Virtual workers tend to identify more closely with their immediate teams and not so much with the larger organization, because they spend most of their task-related and even social-related time with their team. Many individuals try to gain a sense of belonging by working out of coffee houses and other public spaces that are communal and allow for immediate social interactions and organizational identification. The popularity and the need for communal spaces eventually led to the emergence of formal co-located workspaces, such as WeWork, which help support the belonging needs of virtual workers and other individuals.

2. In the area of health communication, you’ve also researched organ donation among African American families. What factors influence individuals’ decisions to become organ donors? 

In this set of projects, which were led by Dr. Susan Morgan (now at the University of Miami), our team found that a complex constellation of factors influence African Americans’ willingness to donate organs. We know that a combination of interpersonal communication and media messages play a powerful role in influencing individuals’ decisions to become organ donors. Individuals talk with people in their communities about what they see on TV and in the movies, and when entertainment media plays into our worst fears about organ donation, such as organs being procured and harvested before we’re dead, this has a real impact on our willingness to donate organs. Unfortunately, because African Americans are disproportionately represented on the transplant waiting list, depicting false information about organ donation has an outsized, negative impact on African Americans’ willingness to donate organs as well as their ability to receive a transplant. Our research also shows that it is extremely important to address the real concerns that African Americans have about the organ donation process and the trustworthiness of the health care system as a whole. Until we do better as a country in ensuring fair access, African Americans are likely to continue to be more reluctant to donate organs.

3. What are the most common reasons that people give for not wanting to become organ donors? 

First, there are historical factors such as distrust in the medical system that prevent individuals from participating in the system. The United States has a long and storied history of targeting African Americans and other marginalized groups as experimental subjects without their consent, with dire consequences. The most egregious example was the Tuskegee Experiment. This has had negative generational impacts on African Americans’ willingness to consider donating their organs. Additionally, because of systematic racism and historical marginalization, there is a perception among many African Americans that physicians will not do everything in their power to save lives of African Americans, particularly if it is known that they are organ donors.

A second factor is religion and spiritual beliefs. Many African Americans believe that it is important to keep the body whole after death because bodily integrity may be important for the afterlife. 

A third reason is the familial influence over consent for donation. Our team recorded discussions among family dyads as part of our HRSA-funded project and African Americans almost always mentioned that their grandparents or other elders felt negatively about organ donation and that this influenced their decisions. At the time of our study, there were emerging clear generational differences about participating in the process but regardless of the age of our participants, familial influences on donation decisions were strong.

Finally, the media significantly influences a person’s perceptions of the organ procurement and donation system. Almost every single African American family member who participated in our study mentioned specific negative media depictions of the organ donation process (e.g., the film John Q) and how it influenced their decision to not become a potential organ donor. We hope that the results of our studies have had an impact on Hollywood scriptwriters and producers.

4. You recently edited a volume called Contexts of the Dark Side of Communication. What does the “dark side of Communication” refer to? What were some of the most interesting contributions in this volume? 

My colleague, Dr. Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, and I had such a great time co-editing this book. We wanted to cover a broad range of topics across a number of our disciplinary fields. Research on the dark side of communication has typically been studied from a single standpoint confined to a specific context. As an intra-disciplinary project, this volume transcends the traditional unilateral perspective and focuses on a wide range of communication topics across a variety of contexts. It was just a fun book to organize because it is such a departure from how we typically conceptualize Communication scholarship. 

As scholars, we often try to look at the bright side of the human condition and account for some of the negative aspects of human communication as anomalies or things that are out of the ordinary. This volume normalizes negative and non-positive Communication scholarship as just as natural and probably more common than traditional, hopeful Communication scholarship that we all have read and strive to publish. Jealousy, envy, and bad behavior are under-researched parts of our human condition, and they show up communicatively in a number of contexts—interpersonally, organizationally, in health contexts, and non-verbally. The contributors did a wonderful job of centralizing non-positive communication throughout the volume. I found all of the chapters fascinating, and the feedback that we have received about the book has been overwhelmingly positive (no pun intended). 

5. You served as the Chair of NCA’s former Affirmative-Action Intercaucus Committee.  What advice would you give to scholars who are interested in serving in NCA leadership positions?  

Serving as the Chair of the former Affirmative-Action Intercaucus Committee (AAIC) was one of the highlights of my career. I served as Chair for three years and our committee did several things to advance the mission of the committee, as well as the mission of NCA. I have been honored to serve in a number of leadership capacities at NCA, the Association for Communication Administrators (ACA), and the Southern States Communication Association (SSCA). I encourage everyone to find their role or place to help advance the mission of our disciplinary organizations.  

I have the pleasure of currently serving as SSCA President. My work within NCA has helped inform my leadership at SSCA and ACA. These member-driven associations are also member-led, which makes it incredibly important that we have a steady stream of volunteers to serve in a variety of capacities, from paper reviewers, to Chairs of divisions and caucuses, to senior leadership roles. Just jump in and raise your hand to participate. There is always room at the table for good ideas, but more importantly, for individuals who can execute those ideas.