Amitai Etzioni’s Methods of Control for Work Compliance

Etzioni himself

Etzioni himself

The second thing I wanted to note about Abe Walker’s essay on Google was a section where Walker mentions a social scientist named Amitai Etzioni.

Etzioni identifies three prominent methods that organizations use to achieve work compliance in 1975 in his work A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations (1975):

Coercive compliance involves the implicit threat of physical sanctions to control organizational participants, and typically suffers from high levels of alienation.

Normative compliance builds a strong sense of ‘belonging’ permeating all levels of an organization, based on selective hiring and socialization of employees into a common culture or value-system. Etzioni (1975) describes normative compliance as a system that uses shared values – buttressed by rituals, slogans and symbols – to encourage the active compliance of organizational participants. This approach requires ‘that workers and their superiors share a basic set of values’ and depends initially on selection of employees to ensure like-minded people, followed by training and socialization of employees into company norms and values (Etzioni, 1975: 36). Expressive leadership and symbolic rewards also play important roles in such a system: ‘attainment of culture goals such as the creation, application, or transmission of values requires the development of identification with the organizational representatives’ (Etzioni, 1975: 65).

In a third remunerative type of control, organizational elites maintain control over lower participants by manipulating material resources, either providing material rewards for good behavior or withholding them to encourage compliance. According to Etzioni, organizations adopt one of these control mechanisms depending on their pre-defined goals, with profit-orientated organizations generally adopting remunerative strategies, cultural and religious organizations using normative techniques, and organizations concerned with order resorting to coercion.

A good example of remunerative control here would be businesses using the concept of “raises” to control lower-end workers and how those workers react to the policies and procedures of the given organization.

Normative control would consist of churches using prayers, songs, dance, community experiences, etc. to make people feel like they belong (and should donate) to the church they go to.

And states often use coercive control by enforcing laws (moral or not) through the police and prisons.

What this analysis reveals to us is that all of the organizations in our society have ways to ensure that the individuals underneath them will remain obedient somehow. Maybe they’ll use money, maybe they’ll use social bonding or maybe they’ll use outright violence (though besides government and mafias this is rare). But regardless of their method, organizations often have a vested interest in keeping the people on the lower rung (presuming it’s a hierarchical model) in control, while the people on top follow their own rules.

For example, my boss could leave whenever he wants. But if I tried to leave whenever I wanted or even just five minutes early then my co-workers are liable to get upset with me. If I did something like this, it’s unlikely I’d get threatened with violence or that my boss would try to socially bond with me. Instead, he’d likely threaten to cut my hours (which he already threatened previously for forgetting to refill cups) which is a remunerative type of control.

This has been a very effective way to control my actions because I can tell you with utter confidence that ever since that attempt at remunerative control, I’ve refilled the cups every time. Why? Because the money my boss is threatening me with losing is some of the few dollars I am making in a month that doesn’t go to food, transportation or rent.

There are other ways to use remunerative control that are less direct though.

My boss could give one of my co-workers a raise because he feels like they are doing a good job. This is a positive reinforcement to them but it can also be used as a negative reinforcement to the rest of us. After all, we’re not doing that good and why not? Actions like this can get workers to start disliking each other or pushing themselves even more so they can get the attention they feel they deserve.

This type of remunerative control isn’t the only type of control that for-profit businesses can do. The fact that we all wear the name tags, the uniforms, the hats (some of us) is a form of normative control. These things all remind us that we’re on “the same team” and that we have common interests, goals and values that enable us to better satisfy customers.

Ugh…gag me.

Anyways, there’s definitely a mix of normative and remunerative types of control but the direction seems largely geared towards remunerative in my experience. Sure, there’s always going to be the business that is super excited to get you to wear their flair, but for the most part threatening you with wage cuts or lost hours will be more effective than social bonding. And for the most part, bosses would probably rather take the shorter path and threaten what you’re really at the job for (in a lot of cases) which is money. Just like the capitalist, hitting us in our pocketbooks is usually the most effective way at getting us to do what someone else wants.

I can’t imagine coercive control happens at for-profit businesses unless you first commit the aggression. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this general concept, but I don’t often hear or see it nor experience it. Which obviously doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course it happens. But it’s probably not the dominant form of control because as Etzioni notes, this style of control tends to have high levels of alienation. Lower forms of alienation usually tend to not be as harmful to a business getting more employees, customers, etc.

This was just a brief overview of the three forms of control and I wanted to highlight them because I found them particularly interesting within Walker’s essay. But you can also read Walker’s essay if you want to get a better idea of how it related to Google in particular and some broader commentary about how they relate to the current state-capitalist economy.

There’s another concept called neo-normative control which is when a company will use “liberation” lens to get the workers to work harder. Google’s a great example of this according to Walker:

Google is frequently cited as an archetypal example of the neo-normative firm (Fleming, 2009; Cederström and Grassman, 2008). Like other neo-normative organizations, Google’s model relies on a heady and unstable mix of freedom and control. While Etzioni’s models of organization involve overt system of control, manifest in different ways, neo-normative management seems to portend what Fleming calls the ‘control-free’ organization, or ‘liberation management’. Permitting employees to be themselves is presumed to result in higher motivation and productivity levels.

So liberation management offers a version of freedom that is never completely removed from the shadow of control. 20 Percent Time is a prime example of this tension, for the policy offers a measure of freedom, but one that is constantly subject to modulation. Employees are required to document 20 Percent Time projects, and the company has dedicated at least one full-time employee (the unfortunately named ‘Director of Other’) to overseeing its 20% policy (Yen 2008). Indeed, Google takes an intense interest in ensuring that Googlers use their 20 Percent Time effectively. As Iyer and Davenport (2008: 8) noted in a piece for Harvard Business Review, ‘These percentages … are closely managed’.

“Liberation management” is an excellent phrase that I aim to use more often to highlight my suspicion (some may call cynicism) of companies like Google giving workers more “freedom” in the workplace. In my view these are just often  policies that try to harness workers productivity but in a manipulative way, to get them to want more freedom.

I agree with Walker that the trick is to turn this method against the companies who dare give the workers inch. When they give us an inch we should take as many feet as we can. Use their manipulative designs against them and fight for expanding those freedoms until “liberation management” simply becomes liberation.


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