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.


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