Category Archives: Identity

Culture control

By Sara Louise Muhr

 The notion of culture control was developed in the 1990’s, beginning with Gideon Kunda’s ground-breaking book on how organisations engineer specific cultures in order to control their employees (see also Kunda’s work with John Van Maaanen). This marked a shift in how power was seen and defined in management and organisation theory.

Before, power in organisations had mainly been defined following Weberian or Marxian terms. That is, one had power over someone else if one had control over, for example, resources and capital or if one could flash a title or wield ownership. Partly building on Lukes’ seminal work, Fleming and Spicer (2014) label these forms of power episodic. Episodic forms of power are exercised in ways that allow for the easy identification of the source of power. In other words, you know who your boss is and that the fact that he or she is your boss gives him or her power over you. Or you know who owns the company, who the major stakeholders are or which people have specific knowledge about, for example, a key aspect of the production line, which makes them extremely valuable for the organisation and, hence, a powerful voice in various negotiations.

However, in the beginning of the 1990’s – especially with the increasing acknowledgement and importance of the work of Foucault – management scholars (especially within so-called critical management studies) began to examine how more subtle or invisible forms of power influenced organisations and the people within them. In other words, management scholars began to look at what Fleming and Spicer call systemic forms of power. Systemic forms of power – rather than being visible and identifiable – mobilize institutional, ideological, and discursive resources to influence organizational activity. Fleming and Spicer divide such systemic forms into two specific processes of power: Domination and subjectification.

In processes of domination, power works through the construction of ideological values; that is, by making certain values seem natural and inevitable, thus controlling what is perceived as ‘normal’ behaviour. In an organisational context this means what an ‘ideal employee’ would be and how we are expected to work, dress, negotiate and interact in various organisation. Domination thereby works through a naturalizing process. It makes (organizational) values seem natural, meaning don’t even think about why we act according to these values; we just do it. To exemplify, one could begin to think about how and why ideologies like globalization, industrialization, financialization – or more mundane fashions like flexible work, coaching or team-building – have become unquestioned organisational ‘truths’.

Subjectification (the other systemic power process) in a sense builds on domination as this form of power asserts itself when an individual begins to identify him- or herself through one of these naturalized ideologies. It is power over you, as aligning your self-identity to a given (corporate) ideology makes you feel normal. All people have some kind of basic need to belong to a group. Thus ideologies regulate our identities as they (subtlety) influence what we perceive as ‘normal’ behaviour of the group(s) to which we (wish to) belong. This is so both in the general society – how are we supposed to behave as, for example, little girls in the society we grow up in? – and in organisations – how are we supposed to behave as, for example, managers, designers, prison guards, home care aids to fit the professional codex? We have unspoken rules (ideologies) for how to behave in each of these categories and one’s surroundings (parents, friends, co-workers, bosses, subordinates) will most certainly react if one does not fit in. Thus, the expectations as to how we belong to certain identity categories regulate the way we see ourselves as successful (whether at being a mother, a boss, an art-director or a banker). Power as subjectification, then, works through the expectations that society and our organisation sets up, but it is a subtle form of power; as nobody tells us directly what to do, it is us our ‘own free will’ that decides that we want to do it. In this way, both domination and subjectification question what freedom and autonomy mean and in a sense renders both impossible.

To control through organisational culture is to control through domination and subjectification. Most organisations have a set of values and an organisational mission/vision specific to what this organisation stands for. For example, the consulting groups Cowi’s values are ‘integrity’, ‘respect’, ‘independence’, ‘professional capability’ and ‘freedom’. All these values set specific expectations to what kind of person you should be when working at Cowi; not skills or competences, but what you as a person should identify with. Some companies go even further. For example, Newell, a global marketer of various branded consumer goods and commercial products, has a long description of how ‘employees act and feel when they live the Newell Way’. When values like these are repeated over and over again, they may become almost like religions; the ideology, the one truth you live by, the thing that distinguishes you from people working elsewhere. This means that employees have a deep value-based idea about what a typical employee is. Some organisations – like IBM – don’t talk about their employees as working at IBM, but about being an IBM’er. You become one of them, you belong to the culture. Employees in organisations with so-called strong cultures often can’t explicate exactly what it is, but they feel different from people belonging to other organizations and this emotional attachment to the organisation creates a strong tie to the organisation – much stronger than any monetary reward or punishment could create.

This is culture control. The company defines a certain set of values, recruits people who believe in these value, and rewardz those who feel and live the values. Most managers I have talked to admit that when they recruit, they ‘know’ whether they want to hire a person within the first two minutes. This is not because they are good at decoding your competences, it is because they make a cultural match between the organisational culture and your personality. Will you live the values? That is the question.

Culture control, in other words, is when you’re not aware of the fact that you’re being controlled, because you’re being controlled by your own desire to live up to the expectations of a (very carefully crafted) organisational culture (without you knowing that it is very carefully crafted or even that what you are doing when you praise your organisation is acting according to its power games). This is where your freedom (one of Cowi’s values, remember) can be questioned.

Culture control and how it taps into systemic forms of power teaches us that an organisation (or simply a relation between two people) is never power free. What research on culture control has to offer, is the warning to be very careful about how we see (and most of the time uncritically cherish), for example, freedom, flexibility and self-management in organisations. In most contemporary organisations, we see praise of such values, but at the same time high demands of integrity, responsibility and engagement (see the various company values). When organisations both offer their employees freedom and ask them to be responsible, they craft very specific organisational cultures where success is an individual responsibility. I have heard the following phrase so many times: ‘We don’t tell our employees to work this much, but they love their jobs, they love the organisation and we love each other’. This is how organisations – through crafting a culture of commitment or passion or integrity and responsibility – can make employees work until they drop without having to directly tell them to do so. This is the prevalent trend of work-life today (as is unfortunately very clearly indicated by stress-statistics).

Still, we don’t want this freedom taken away from us. We want exciting and challenging jobs, we want to be pushed and developed at work. We don’t want to go back to the ‘old’ power forms of micro management and factory-like time tables for work. In sum, we want culture control. So, how are organisations to conduct culture control responsibly? How are managers to construct exciting organisational cultures, attract the ‘right’ type of employee that fits the organisational values, without turning them in to marionette puppets – or as the standing joke in the consulting business go: high achievers with low self-confidence. How are we to avoid that people work themselves to death or, as many top managers do, regret when they get older that they didn’t spend enough time with friends and family. How can we build exciting organisational cultures in a responsible way? This is one of the most challenging and committing (to remain in the terminology) questions of contemporary research on power in organisations.


The demise and prevalence of national culture

If you have read Strategizing Communication, you will know that we do not make much of national culture. Skirting traditional takes on intercultural communication in which one’s cultural identity is assumed to be defined by the imprint on one’s passport, we prefer an approach in which nationality is never the only and rarely the most important determinant of the collective identity of a target group. Now, you may agree with this approach. After all, your everyday routines are likely to constantly transcend national boundaries (your toothpaste and your shampoo are probably manufactured by some multinational corporation; your milk may be locally produced, but your coffee is most likely not; your phone is perhaps designed in the US or maybe in South Korea, but it is almost certainly assembled in China). Further, the choices you face during the course of a day do not seem to have much to do with a single nationality either (should it be pizza or perhaps sushi tonight? Was the combination of Nike sneakers and Armani shirt really a good sartorial choice? Is Beyoncé or Adele the better singer?). But wait, such examples are extremely shallow (there’s more to you than your brand of phone or your choice in music, right?) and awfully privileged (who can afford an Armani shirt anyway?). And they ignore the prevalence of nationality in deeper processes of socialization as well as life-choices that really matter (most of us got our primary education in public schools, which tend to be rather nation-centric institutions, and although international marriages may be more and more common, they are still in minority; the rise in cross-border marriages is a trend to be noted rather than a well-established fact).

Thus, we may scorn the idea that we as individuals are bound to and/or identified by national culture, but the socio-political bounds of the nation-state nevertheless seem to prevail. And this prevalence has cultural over- and undertones, relating to the widespread resurgence of nationalism. Thus, nationalist parties are – and have been for some time now – on the rise across Europe, and these parties clearly connect more with a culturally defined nation than with a politically defined state, often aligning national belonging with cultural heritage as well as religious belief and ethnicity.

As an example, a 2016 campaign by the Danish People’s Party confined ‘our Denmark’ and the wish to safeguard it to one ethnic identity with clear socio-cultural implications. Although this campaign lent itself nicely to various forms of repurposing and recirculation showing alternative opinions and images as to what ‘our Denmark’ might be, it cannot be neglected that it pinpoints the position of a party that won 21.1% of the votes in the most recent parliamentary election (held on June 18th, 2015).


The reports of the death of national culture, then, are greatly exaggerated. Or, perhaps more accurately, national culture understood in substantial terms (as the actual content of all its members’ daily lives; their norms, values, traditions, practices, etc.) has by all accounts disappeared, but a socio-political imaginary has forcefully imposed itself in its place.

socialmedia_kvadra_1027891yThis imaginary may have little to do with the actual lives of the people who feel drawn to it; it may be an ideological construct rather than a material fact. Yet it has very real effects – as, for instance, witnessed by the formation and rising popularity of Alternative for Germany (formed in 2013, this nationalist-conservative party gained 12,6% of the votes in the latest state elections, held in March, 2016), the looming Brexit (following the leave vote in the referendum of June, 2016) and the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the next president of the US (at the elections to be held on November 8th, 2016). For strategic communicators, this does not mean that we can return to an understanding that ‘Germans are like this’, ‘Brits like that’, ‘Americans something else altogether’ and adapt our communication accordingly, but it does mean that national culture – particularly, in its ideological guise – continues to be a factor to be reckoned with.


By Andrew DJ Shield

Imagine that you’re a black woman who wants to work for a major U.S. company with hundreds of employees. But you notice something strange: the company doesn’t seem to hire black women. They’re just not there. Seems like an obvious case of discrimination, right?

This was basically the situation at General Motors (GM) in 1976, when a group of black women sued the company for discriminatory hiring practices. But they lost the case. After all, the court found that GM hired plenty of women, so there was no evidence of sexism. (It didn’t matter that these were white women, did it?) And the court found that GM hired plenty of African-Americans, so there was no evidence of racism. (It didn’t matter that these were all men, did it?) In short, the court decided that “black women” were not a unique group that needed protection.

Thirteen years later, in 1989, lawyer and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, still grappling with the topic of discrimination across multiple axes (race, sex), introduced the term “intersectionality”. The 1976 GM court case was central to her argument, as were the works in a 1981 anthology (by black feminist authors) entitled All the Women Are White; All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us are Brave. Crenshaw was not the first to discuss discrimination across multiple axes: throughout the 1980s, black feminists—most notably in the U.S., but also in the U.K. and the Netherlands—addressed racism in the (predominantly white) feminist movement, and sexism within the (predominantly male) civil rights movement. So why, in 1989, was it still so hard for so many people to understand that black women—and others who experienced discrimination on multiple axes—faced unique obstacles? Intersectionality was there to help.

The concept of intersectionality relates to how we talk about multiple identities (e.g. black, female) that operate within multiple systems of power and oppression (e.g. racism, sexism). Beyond sex and race, the term “intersectionality” has been expanded to include issues related to class, age, religion, migration status, physical (dis)ability, body type/size, mental health, sexual orientation, (trans)gender identity, educational background, ethnic (minority) background, language skills, and much more.


The most common error that people make when talking about intersectionality is to describe discrimination or oppression as additive: 1+1=2. In other words, they might talk about the discrimination that black women have faced in the U.S. as a matter of “double jeopardy” of sexism + racism. But discrimination can also be synergistic: 1+1=3. In the case of GM, for instance, the black women were even more discriminated against than just sex and race put together.

How individuals experience their identity (e.g. sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic class) is always context-specific, as are the related systems of oppression (e.g. heterosexism/homophobia, ageism, class inequality). These identities and relations of power don’t merely operate differently at the state-level, but also at the organizational level, or even within specific subcultures. In order to understand the ways a group might be marginalized in a specific context, one can begin by looking at the political discussions, media representations, cultural norms, laws, social movements, and histories of that specific state, organization, or subculture.

For those studying strategic communication, intersectionality can be a useful concept when talking about target audiences. If an organization’s key demographic is, say, “young people,” how does the outward communication reflect this? Do the organization’s communications include all young people, or are some groups invisible, perhaps even excluded? Does “young people” in fact refer to the much more specific segment of affluent, white, suburban youth? And if so, who might suffer as others are privileged? What different strategies might an organization use to reach out to marginalized groups of young people?