As I listen to the current debate about humanizing the corporation, I’m reminded of an award-winning 1993 ethnography by Professor James Barker of Marquette University that shows how even the best intended of management initiatives can evolve in paradoxical ways. Studying one organization’s transformation from a traditional hierarchy to self-managing teams, Barker was surprised to find that the change produced even tighter control than what existed under the old-fashioned hierarchy.
Ronald, one of the technical employees Barker interviewed for the study, told him that he felt more closely watched under the new egalitarian system. While his former boss might have overlooked him coming in a little late occasionally, for example, his team had a “no tolerance” policy on tardiness. They monitored members’ behaviors closely and imposed sanctions for non-compliance.
Instead of loosening the “iron cage,” as sociologist Max Weber famously called the sort of rule-based, bureaucratic control that we know associate with lumbering corporations, Baker argued that flatter, more egalitarian systems sometimes tighten the cage more powerfully, thanks to peer pressure and what psychologists call “internalized control,” our zealous adherence to norms of our own creation.
Once again, I am struck by how much time and energy is wasted rediscovering ideas and conceptual frameworks that have been explored extensively.
In other words, these people really need to read some Foucault.