Normative Control in Organisations

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


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