Are you comfortable being yourself at work? Two UK researchers argue that this may actually be a form of insidious “neo-normative control.”
Peter Fleming and Andrew Sturdy begin their paper by explaining the concept of “normative control:” in which a company attempts to wield authority “by moulding common attitudes, beliefs and values among employees” to fit one homogenous company culture. They argue that this form of management is being supplanted by neo-normative control, in which employees are encouraged to “be themselves.” In their abstract, the authors state that part of their purpose is to “challenge the liberal claims made by proponents of the new approach and of “fun at work” more generally, that it is liberating for employees, a form of “existential empowerment.”
Before I outline the authors’ problems with neo-normative control, I want to state that I agree with most of their conclusions. My only concern is that they do not propose any real alternatives to this form of management (which, of course, is their prerogative not to), and I think that there are some substantial benefits to the attitude that employees should be encouraged to be themselves at work, especially for those in minority groups, whose identities differ from the kind that are usually tolerated in “normative” company cultures.
Fleming and Sturdy studied an American-owned call center based in Australia (given the pseudonym “Sunray”) through a series of interviews, observation, and document analysis. They found that the call center had “a strong emphasis on the expression [of] individual and authentic identities, feelings and lifestyles and on the acceptance, and even celebration, of differences.”
So why do they argue that this is a form of control?
“Sunray reinforces broader societal constructions of identity”
The authors argue that the kinds of diversity encouraged at Sunray are things like sexual orientation, consumerism, and playfulness as opposed to things like familial roles and politics. While this is an important point (it’s vital to consider which forms of identity are allowed expression in the workplace, and to make room for those that have traditionally not been tolerated), I would argue that an openness to different sexual orientations and levels of playfulness in the office is a good start. Earlier in the paper, the authors also interview an employee who felt encouraged to bring in a book on anti-capitalism as a way to express their identity, so it seems that political diversity is at least somewhat tolerated.
“Control is evident in the limits implicitly and explicitly imposed”
This is similar to the first point, but basically the authors are arguing that, despite Sunray’s rhetoric about freedom, there were still limitations on what employees could do. The authors point to the fact that there was considered “no need” for a trade union presence by the employers. They also highlight one employee who had family commitments but was still pressured to go to an event organized by the office. While there will probably always be some limit to absolute freedoms in the workplace, it is important to evaluate whether an employer’s commitment to individuality or diversity is also being used as an implicit limit on employees’ rights.
“Appropriation…of identities and other unrewarded characteristics for productive ends”
The authors argue that Sunray’s encouragement of employees to be themselves and thus to have more fun and be more comfortable in the office is a way to facilitate better customer service. To me, though, this just seems like smart business and a win-win for employers and employees. Just because employees are more productive when they feel more excited to be at work, doesn’t mean that the efforts to make employees more comfortable or open to being themselves are necessarily sinister forms of control.
“The encouragement…of identities and “real” selves at Sunray serve[s] as a form of self-disciplinary control”
Now that identities that were once kept private are encouraged full expression in the workplace, the authors argue that individual successes and failures are attributed to the “type of person the employee [is].” They provide part of an interview with a manager as an example: “I will first recognize a difference in their attitude…and I will say ‘What has happened? Is it the job or something at home? What can I do to help you with that?”
It seems beneficial to be able to discuss all aspects of one’s life in order to be honest about difficulties and find potential solutions. It is also not as if prior to the acceptance of “being yourself” at work, an employee’s poor performance was attributed to the workplace. Employees were still held accountable for their contributions, they just may have felt less comfortable voicing a personal problem or a difficult situation in the office that stemmed from part of their identity.
While it’s important to recognize how calls to “be yourself” at work might have drawbacks, it’s also important to recognize their benefits, especially compared to previous systems that pressured everyone to hide their identities. This is particularly true for identities that were formerly stigmatized. In an excellent paper by professors at Boston College and Simmons University, there are several encounters described in which LGBTQIA individuals have conversations with their coworkers and employers about their identities (particularly their sexual orientations). The vast majority of these conversations lead to increased workplace benefits or at least a more tolerant and open work environment, something that would be hard to come by if employees were not encouraged to be themselves.