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).

Corporations are forced to become increasingly more sophisticated with their forms of normative control. 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. Normative control hence, becomes, over time, more sophisticated in nature and more difficult to observe, independently interpret and therefore, manage.

Normative control is typically the product of carefully constructed, enacted and positively reinforced ideologies. In other words, normative control could be considered a complex system of interconnected actions evident through the 'management' of an organisation's 'culture.' Normative control is observed in strong cultures, where an organisation’s ideology is reinforced through less ambiguous actions. For instance, these actions are typically executed by sources of authority, notably leadership teams: dramaturgical performance acts evident through public appearances, interpersonal performance encounters of various sorts or other means. Put differently, these actions are, in a general sense, carefully managed performance displays. It is important to note that such performance displays are not typically sinister, they are simply efforts in maintaining order and actions of which are designed to induce a sense of cultural consensus among organisational members, that is, consensus around the typical organisational member's subjective experience. It should be considered quite important for all employees across the corporate hierarchy and particularly those in lower echelons, or those who consider themselves marginal - employees situated on the periphery of the dominate culture, to understand exactly how carefully crafted ideologies and the 'managed culture' impacts on, and influences their subjective experience.

One must also consider that objects of normative control may became agents of it given the spoken or unspoken authority to act, particularly in social encounters where an external other is gaining control over their subjective experience. Stated differently, where one may be distancing themselves in thought, feeling and or action, both openly and deliberately from the agents of normative control.

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

How does normative control impact the self? One of my greatest concerns, is that normative control may suppress independent critical thinking and, more problematically, freedom of expression. Expression of thought, provides an opportunity for reflection and the generation of critical insight. The aggregation of such experience builds positive momentum for the employee’s introspective journey and therefore, one would hope, furthering the development of critical thinking skills.

While we are geared to learn from our broader environments and interpersonal experiences, critically analysing the ideologies of 'managed cultures' of which we work must have a central point of intra-personal concern - how is normative control impacting the self - our subjective experience? If and when conscious awareness shifts, and our focus is on such phenomena, an association, a feeling that the ideology or the 'managed culture' does not sit or fit well with respect to the self, may emerge. The opposite also holds true. An awareness of one’s role within the managed culture, either as an agent or object of normative control can result in an enlightening experience or perhaps the realisation of a painful truth. Critically thinking, then, through the intricacies of moment-to-moment business life could be rendered 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 and not the other way around.


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

About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.


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