Forms of social control and shaming in organisations

The task of being a manager is not easy and there are a variety of ways of encouraging people to work in the way that you would like them to. There are both direct and indirect ways of exercising social control in organisations, and ones which have the potential for provoking strong feelings in those one is managing. Some direct ways of encouraging people to work can involve some kind of overt form of humiliation. Meanwhile indirect ways can invite conformity with a group ideal, what GH Mead termed a ‘cult value’, and potentially trigger people’s guilt, embarrassment or shame. Humiliation involves a public naming of a supposed guilty party, an overt setting apart. The invitation to conform, however, provokes at the same time the strong possibility of self-censorship through guilt or embarrassment that arises for an individual faced with potential exclusion from the group. In group situations the invitation to conform can be experienced as more or less oppressive.

A young woman I know recently took a job making sandwiches in a well known UK sandwich and coffee chain.  Starting at six o’clock in the morning she was obliged to turn out a certain number of sandwiches in an hour with the prospect of gaining a bonus, an extra pound an hour, at the end of the week if she and the rest of her team met their targets. Any one member of the team could jeopardise the bonus for every other member of the team. So,  for example, another colleague serving in the shop front had forgotten to wish one of her customers to ‘have a nice day’  and smile after she had finished serving him because it was such a busy time of day. This particular customer was a mystery shopper sent in to score the ‘quality’ of the service he had received. He judged the quality to be only 60% instead of the necessary 90%  (the smile is clearly a third of the quality service of buying a sandwich) so everyone in the store lost their bonus.

On the basis of a smile or lack of it, a collective motivator, an extra pound an hour if you do your best, turns into a form of collective punishment. It is also a personal humiliation for the person who ‘lost everyone else their bonus’. If you are only being paid the minimum wage, losing an extra pound an hour can make a significant difference to the week’s income. With these sorts of methods employees are dragooned into policing each other.

Less overt would be the situation we described in the last post, or perhaps occasions such as organisational ‘visioning’ sessions which usually take place during strategic planning events. Participants in such workshops are invited to imagine an idealised end state, where the department, project or organisation wants to be in five years time. There is usually a requirement that this idealised vision needs to be ‘exciting’ so that it can motivate the participants in the workshop.  ‘Exciting’ can sometimes simply mean disproportionate to the level of success that the organisation has achieved to date. If this is the case then a ‘step change’ in working practices is required to bring this  ‘stretch target’ about. This in turn will require a ‘culture change’ in the organisation where employees are invited to change their behaviour which, in the light of the new and exciting vision is now thought to be inadequate, towards some other kind of behaviour which is necessary to achieve the vision. This might mean running meetings more efficiently, or something vaguer, such as ‘living the brand’ or ‘living the values’. In any case, there is a strong social pressure exerted to think, act or behave differently in order to conform to what ‘the organisation’ requires of you.

It is often very hard in such workshops to express doubt or concern about the vision being proposed: it may, in idealised terms, be a very exciting vision of what could be achieved, although it is usually one which is shorn of all constraint. Working towards utopian ends, beginning something new,  has long motivated people to work tirelessly, and sometimes courageously, to achieve them. This is an important social phenomenon. But another strong dynamic in such settings is the need to belong to be part of what the sociologist Norbert Elias referred to as the ‘we identity’. Since humans are highly social animals  we have a pronounced  need to be part of the group. This makes it difficult in situations where one can agree with the idealisation but still think that achieving it in five years is unrealistic. There is a strong pressure in such situations to conform and not to voice any doubt for fearing of appearing ‘negative’.

Managers in organisations are working constantly with asymmetric power relations with the employees they manage, as they try to encourage better working relationships and coordination. The way they do this, the extent to which they are prepared to negotiate and maintain pluralism and difference, will make a significant difference to the degree to which their employees experience feeling safe at work. Feelings of shame and humiliation are unavoidable in the workplace, as they are in any other social setting, but the extent to which they are deliberately provoked as a tool of management is a matter for managers to reflect on.

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