Organisations enacting classic management practices can present serious challenges for diversity and inclusion practitioners wanting to contest the status quo and carry out effective work. These bureaucratically oriented organisations impel routinised, rather than democratised, orientations to work, and their structures and cultures typically operate against logic that encourages individuation and self-actualisation.

Managers of bureaucratic organisations can justify authoritarian mannerisms, operating largely through highly systemised operational practices, by citing economic drivers that mandate stable and predictable environments. Because of this, the need to innovate, embrace change, transform and revolutionise organisational practices may be strongly resisted. Predictably, this impacts the ability of the diversity and inclusion practitioner to find degrees of freedom in their scope of work.

Over the past two centuries particularly, the external environment impacting classic management practices has forcibly catalysed bureaucratic organisations to adapt through the process of decentralisation. We are living in that epoch now. Degrees of freedom in the scope of diversity and inclusion work can more readily be found because of this change. A good starting point, for interested leaders and practitioners in the field of diversity management who are contemplating potentialities and degrees of freedom, might be asking probing questions concerning the decentralising nature of organisation life.

Decentralisation occurs via functional areas of the organisation that require increased democratisation, risk taking and innovation in order to stay competitive. The key here is to find apertures, through decentralising processes, which support increased primary and secondary levels of diversity, inclusion and self-agency. In reality, this might occur through new-found, yet traditionally atypical channels of employee communication; new network creations for marginal cohorts; and alternate forms of autonomy, for example, gradations of individual decision-making capacities. The practitioner should look for avenues that induce micro emancipation, through apertures in organisational systems and structures. The aim is to catalyse small changes that will lead to large employee effects.

Decentralisation may result in bifurcation points around key pressures, paradoxes or contradictions that block new, democratic ways of operating. The diversity and inclusion practitioner must deal with these contradictory tensions. For example, existing decision-making systems and forms of control, associated politics of hierarchy and careerism may block or undermine new developments. The diversity and inclusion practitioner must remember that new futures will always create tensions. Cognitive rigidity, otherwise known as black and white thinking, is a further problem, because resistance sits more with binary thinkers – those who operate at lower frequencies. However, finding creative ways to mobilise and retain desirable qualities on both sides, while minimising negative resistance, is a challenge worth fighting for.

Asking questions calls for careful interpretation of answers

Diversity leaders and practitioners would do well to employ an ongoing process of reflection when considering questions about the nature of their organisation. Accurately "reading" the organisation - observing, thinking and then interpreting the nature of organisational life - may catalyse new potentials and possibilities. Reflecting quite deliberately on the nature, complexities, ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions of the organisation, as well as contemplating the life of its members, may offer crucial insights into one's ability to question the status quo and make innovative inroads. I encourage diversity and inclusion practitioners to write about their insights and reflections continuously, and further, to contemplate on what is known; what is unknown; what is observed as well as document organisational patterns and what sense can be made of those insights. This personal and iterative and interpretative process is foundational. It is an ideal starting point, designed to compel the diversity and inclusion practitioner to think, before acting prematurely, about their capacity to deliver worthwhile outcomes.

My professional view is that no effective strategy can be developed or deployed without an interpretative process; otherwise, the practitioner has almost nothing of value to say or to contribute about the nature of the organisation beyond what others, either management or those in the industry, are saying and doing. The latter approach should be avoided at all costs. Firstly, the practitioner should be guided by their interpretations of the nature of the organisation and their capacity to do effective work, delivering in the process far superior and more convincing proposals which are particularly valuable during budget and resource allocation periods. More importantly, the diversity and inclusion practitioner will be highly influential when the time comes for building both internal and external coalitions from various interlocking networks, to assist in deploying a thoughtful strategy while concurrently pacifying potential enemies.

Practitioners might begin by concentrating broadly on macro-focused considerations. Is the organisation structured simply, or is there a higher level of discretion in organisational capacities? Is the organisation operating in stable or unpredictable economic environments? What are the patterns of economic growth? What are the environmental warning signals? What are the changing trends and patterns that could hint at economic turbulence? It is important to consider environmental dynamisms and potential technological, labour and sociopolitical influences, because these factors may ultimately function as resistance hubs. Could any of these environmental dynamisms create new opportunities or hinder progress in the pursuit of delivering a potentially sound strategy? Reading broader environmental conditions may assist in grasping key dimensions that challenge existing assumptions and may open new avenues for effective action.

The next question is, what organisation-wide strategies are currently in action or have withered? It might be worthwhile to take a chronological perspective. At this stage, it would also be wise to find out who created and deployed those strategies, the rationale for such strategies and, most importantly, the outcomes of those strategies to date. Moreover, consider whether the organisation is operating in a reactionary manner, reacting in response to both intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli? If so, what stimuli, and why? Or is the organisation moving towards market proactivity, seeking new ideas and approaches for strategy development? Another possible and interesting scenario: is the organisation willing to change operating practices that question status quo activities, in an attempt to catalyse innovation?

Thinking now in terms of the nature of work: is there a high, medium or low latitude for agency? What parts of organisational life are flexible or rigid? Moreover, are members predominatingly turning up to work just for the money? If so, why? Are members deeply committed to the values of the company? Are members searching for a challenge? Are they seeking involvement? Can you describe the culture, the espoused and enacted values and beliefs and the overall, underlying assumptions? Is the organisation largely driven by upper echelon rhetoric, with little action? Or is there substance behind what management transmits? Who, in the organisation, transmits substance? Make sure to find and recruit those individuals into your coalition. Finally, what are the overall presenting themes? Be detailed in the interpretative process and aim to continually fine-tune the analysis.

My research focus acknowledges the central importance of knowing the marginalised worker. Some important questions arise from this for the practitioner’s consideration and interpretation. How have the marginalised arrived at their capacity of work? What can the practitioner interpret about their journey? What about their challenges? What have the marginalised overcome? What have they endured? Are there privileged cohorts who have not faced challenges? It is almost impossible to know the marginalised worker’s life from a distance. The diversity and inclusion practitioner should join the marginalised worker in order to know them and intricately understand them: their struggles, their aspirations and their self-actualising efforts and life road blocks. It is important to learn about their experiences from their point of view and then to interpret those experiences in order to assist in their pursuit of greater agency and self-actualisation.

In interpreting responses to these questions, the diversity and inclusion practitioner may notice that there are often hidden and unquestioned assumptions in the management of bureaucratic organisations: assumptions built into the organisational structure, systems and information flows that can offer greater degrees of freedom and, therefore, can leverage the practitioner’s ability to catalyse change, develop an effective strategy and deliver honourable work. The central purpose of this careful, reflective approach is to reduce myopic viewpoints. Deliberate contemplation of the nature of organisational life produces a broader and more accurate “reading” of organisational reality. The observations, thoughts and interpretations generated should be ample, insightful and interesting. What this process means, in reality, is that the diversity and inclusion practitioner has embarked on the necessary thought-provoking foundational work that will give them conviction, respect and authority in voicing their ideas. Indeed, upper management should want to prevent the organisation from suffering as a result of requisite variety – in the organisational setting, a system that insulates itself from diversity and inclines to atrophy.

Intelligent action silences resistance

All organisational life is interest based, and we must evaluate all aspects of functioning with this in mind. In many respects, it is the practitioner’s responsibility to define the realities of others and to persuade members to enact those realities. This may seem undemocratic. However, it is sensible for a practitioner operating in a bureaucratic environment to identify and dismantle illegitimate and unjustified systems of bureaucratic forms of power. In the process, the practitioner pulls the crucial strings that create valuable changes at the margin. Consider also that new solutions tend to create the basis for new problems; as a practitioner, recording new potential solutions to problems that may surface is a good habit to enact. This is an important strategy in preparing for unintended consequences.

About the author

Theaanna Kiaos is an Organisational Anthropologist. Theaanna's research method of specialisation is ethnography. Her academic research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control with a particularly strong focus concerning how these interconnected phenomena impact marginal cohorts in the workplace. Her research has been featured on SBS World News and she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.


Re-posted from Institute of Managers and Leaders Blog

With International Women’s Day approaching, I was asked by the team at the Institute of Managers and Leaders to reflect on whether women need the cooperation of men to succeed. This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It is a subject that requires deep interpretation and certainly commands the antithesis of a black and white driven response. The many complexities and considerations this question seeks of us to resolve, warrants us to stop and think.

Challenge rhetorical questions

Perhaps the question is rhetoric in nature, devoid of needing a response because cooperation is considered an underlying assumption, a mechanism perfected through the evolutionary ages of man and thus, fundamental across all spectrums of life. Or is that simply wishful thinking?

Alas, what we know is that humans evolve at different rates, largely dictated by parenting, culture, education and the collection of life experiences where insight anticipates the transcendence of ill behavioural patterns turning us into thoughtful, mature and well-refined individuals.

However, on this life journey, we also see the continuum of individual thought or lack thereof; we see that some are less thoughtful than others and this is the crux of my argument, the heart of the matter and the core of our debate. This is where I would like to shine the spotlight because without deep thought and even deeper introspection, the evolutionary journey of one’s mind either stagnates or more problematically, withers and along with it, the vital chance to positively influence the trajectory of collective human consciousness.

Keep thinking, the catalyst for cooperation

This debate question poses significant dilemmas where more questions are unearthed the longer and more deliberate a plausible response reveals itself. These require, yet again, deeper analysis and deliberate thought. How do we catalyse insight and introspection? How do we increase the rate of individual thoughtfulness? How do we become more sophisticated in our thinking? How do we take a broader perspective, encouraging the myriad of shades of thought that any topic demands as a response? These questions are important because this is the type of thinking that underpins cooperation. At the heart of cooperation is thinking!

Join the conversation

We cannot advance and progress as equal genders unless we think, together. We cannot transcend ill behavioural patterns without thinking as one. We cannot catalyse the evolutionary trajectory of human consciousness without thinking cooperatively.

So back to the original question. Do women need the cooperation of men to succeed? I ask you, the reader, to make up your own mind, to observe your own thoughts, to consider what is true for you. I ask you to think about the answer, or perhaps, the myriad of other questions that spring to mind when you ponder such a multifarious topic. My response should be null and void to you. All I propose through this article is a perspective to catalyse thought, however, it is up to you, the reader, to determine an apt response.

The Institute of Managers and Leaders will host the International Women’s Day Great Debate on Friday, 8th March. This year’s topic, ‘Her aspiration needs his cooperation’, is the centrepiece in an event seeking to change Australian society by creating, supporting and championing women in leadership. Book now for our events in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sunshine Coast, Sydney and Toowoomba or join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

About the author

Theaanna Kiaos is an Organisational Anthropologist. Theaanna's research method of specialisation is ethnography. Her academic research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control with a particularly strong focus concerning how these interconnected phenomena impact marginal cohorts in the workplace. Her research has been featured on SBS World News and she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.


What is normative control?

Normative control can be defined as the deep, subjective experience of employees that is claimed in the name of the corporate interest. According to Kunda:

Normative control is the attempt to elicit and direct the required efforts of members by controlling their underlying experiences, thoughts and feelings that guide their actions. Under normative control, members act in the best interest of the company, not because they are physically coerced, nor purely from an instrumental concern with economic rewards and sanctions. It is not just their behaviours and activities that are specified, evaluated and rewarded or punished. Rather, they are driven by internal commitment, strong identification with company goals and intrinsic satisfaction from work. These are elicited by a variety of managerial appeals, exhortations and actions (Kunda, 2006:11).

Normative control is observed more easily in strong cultures, where an organisation’s ideology is reinforced through less ambiguous actions that are carefully managed by those in power. It is, therefore, quite important for those in lower echelons to understand exactly how the cultural ideology impacts on, and influences, their subjective experience.

Some employees adapt consciously; some unconsciously; some still prefer to display acceptance on the surface while remaining deeply detached and disconnected from the ideology – a way, perhaps, to preserve the self. Careful observation may reveal this if trust, respect and psychological safety are established between members, either internal or external parties, who are privy to the deepest insights and personal experiences of the employee.

This article is for those who are unaware of how normative control impacts the self. The greatest concern of all is that it may suppress independent thought and, more problematically, freedom of expression. Expression of thought, be that thought right or wrong, provides an opportunity for reflection and insight and the aggregation of such experience builds positive momentum for the employee’s introspective journey.

Sophisticated normative control mechanisms

Corporations are forced to become increasingly more sophisticated with their forms of normative control. This typically takes place through new, carefully constructed ideologies which the culture enacts and positively reinforces through a complex system of interconnected actions.

Consider, for instance, the evolution of post-industrial enterprises that have subsequently encroached on, and tapped into the subjective thoughts, feelings and experiences of workers, often moving outside the boundaries of one’s work cubicle to the inner sanctuaries of our homes – particularly through increases in contingent and flexible working arrangements. This contrasts significantly with the experience of workers during the industrial revolution, where one’s wages were simply transactional in exchange for labour. Hence, normative control becomes, over time, more sophisticated in nature and more difficult to observe, interpret and manage.

Exercise independent thinking

Exercising independent thinking can be difficult under conscious or unconscious normative control; however, some find it easier than others. While we are geared to learn from our broader environments and interpersonal experiences, critically analysing the ideologies of the cultures of which we work must have a point of origin - typically, how normative control is impacting the self. Usually, when awareness has shifted, and our focus is on such phenomena, it can be associated with a feeling that the ideology does not sit or fit well with respect to the self. An awareness of one’s role within the culture can be either an enlightening experience or the realisation of a painful truth. Thinking, then, through the intricacies of moment-to-moment business life is rendered more valuable when normative control is acknowledged and consciously experienced by the self in order to best utilise normative control to one's advantage in the workplace.


Kunda, G. (2006). Engineering Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

About the author

Theaanna Kiaos is an Organisational Anthropologist. Theaanna's research method of specialisation is ethnography. Her academic research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control with a particularly strong focus concerning how these interconnected phenomena impact marginal cohorts in the workplace. Her research has been featured on SBS World News and she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.


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