Culture — A Social Control System?

A functional perspective of culture as an informal control.

Following up on my previous (and first) post which implied that culture is the glue that holds an organisation together; this post presents a counter perspective and briefly talks about how it is also an informal tool of control.

Sure, culture is a very sought after term in today’s world of flat hierarchies and “cool” workplaces; but perhaps it also helps an organisation to create and implement unofficial rules that the members are “expected” to follow, without explicitly stating them.

More than being a set of shared values, some scholars claim it to be more like a web of power relationships which people use to strategically achieve goals. Perhaps that sounds too strong and critical, but it brings us to an important question: isn’t the attempt to hold an organisation together by creating a ‘culture’, an ultimate exercise of power? That power is perceived differently by individuals which is subject to the extent of their values associated with the organisation’s culture and how much it resonates with their beliefs.

Culture is a perceptive variable. It could be illustrated with the different personalities that individuals have — extroverts, introverts and ambiverts. If any of those personalities are expected to act like the other majority of personalities for an inclusive experience at the workplace, then, isn’t that an informal expectation to follow an ingrained culture? While it is believed that individuals may become more enthusiastic and committed to the corporation, it is possible that they are portraying it as a result of feeling embedded in the organisation. Some studies explain that even though employees may feel that they have great autonomy, paradoxically, they are conforming much more.

From a psychological perspective, culture, as a shared norm, can influence a person’s interpretations of events and guide behaviours too. However these mechanisms can also be used to develop social control systems that ranges from different culture settings. It can further be argued that corporate culture does not encourage systems consisting of ‘multiple brains’ because by definition, its already defined as ‘shared meanings’, leaving cultural phenomena that are not ‘shared’ out of the organisation’s focus. Employers often seek a ‘cultural fit’ in their potential employees. Cultural fragmentation is avoided not just by employers, but also by governments and religions.

Another of major criticism of culture is, that

“underneath the surface of famous, apparently “excellent” cultures, bottom-level employees live in different realities” (p.2).

This raises moral objections to corporate culture that sees its aims to be more commercial than humanistic.

It should be noted, however, that there isn’t anything new about attempting to ensure that particular values are held by people, or seeking to instil those values. Employers benefit with advantages such as: increased organisational commitment, reduced conflict, love of firm and its goals, and increased productivity; and employees benefit with advantages such as a sense of purpose, meaning and order (filling a moral void).

Its a complex factor that can both bring people together and pull them apart -or do both at the same time.