Critically Discuss How Identity Is Successfully Used As A Form Of Organizational Control

| January 10, 2017


The aim of this essay is to develop an understanding of identity and critically analyze how identity can be successfully used in an organizational control. It will provide a critique of dominant perspectives and frameworks in organizational identity that are obtained by studies in various academic materials, by referring to theories and research in related experiences and case studies. Meanwhile, positive and negative impacts of use of identity in organizational control will be estimated. Finally, a brief conclusion will be conducted and relevant considerations will be presented so as to effectively look at the use of identity regulation as organizational control.

In order to better understand identity in organization studies, this essay will firstly aim to distinguish the difference between the terms ‘personality’ and ‘identity’. According to Kenny et al. (2011), personality can be defined as the integration of characteristics patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that form an individual’s unique character. It is usually relatively stable for life; however the term identity, on the other hand, can change and turn into multiplicity as influence by external elements, such as social or cultural situations (Kitay and Wright, 2007). This change is because most people would like to associate themselves with a number of identities, while those significant identities will permit people to better believe in the occupation they do (Kitay and Wright, 2007). This has been further explained by Kenny et al. (2011, p.3) who state that identity can involve identification with factors (local context, culture and history) that people call ‘our personality’ but can also belong to ‘group membership’, which particularly emerges in the workplace.

According to the research of scholars in different sectors, identity has been systemically defined in different theoretical perspectives and is also seen as a social category or ‘label’ in workplaces. Henri Tajfel and John Turner proposed social identity theory as they consider people generally use their experiences to identify themselves in certain social groups and dis-identify with others (Mattewman et al., 2009). In other words, they over-stress diversities with the out-group and underrate diversities within the in-group (O’Conner and Annison, 2002). Similarly, this perspective can be related to the idea of homo-sociability, which considers that people prefer to contact with and accept a person who is more like them, such as same social categories of class, age or religion (Kenny et al., 2011). Moreover, Zuboff (1988) and Brewis (2004) pointed out Foucauldian perspective which states people usually would like to identity with the sounds of thought or dominant discourses, therefore in this regard ‘subjectivity’ becomes the powerful relationship to shape individual identities in society. Foucauldian perspective, to some extent, can be seen as the idea of stereotypes; for example, many organizations will assume managers, especially in senior level, are male rather than female because of the cultural norm (Kanter, 1977). Mead (1934) and Goffman (1969) are two main thinkers in this symbolic interactionism perspective. Mead observes that individuals can constitute of ‘Me’ (how we perceive others to think of us) and ‘I’ (the kinds of attitudes and behaviors we use to interact with others). Similarly, Goffman observes identity as the ‘continuing process of managing how we present ourselves to others’ (Kenny et al., 2011, p.15). Both views can be summed up in that people always establish their self-awareness through social interaction with other people (Gardner and Avolio, 1998). The above academic theories contribute a holistic view to allow people to further study ‘identity’ and ‘control’ in-depth. Researchers and management practitioners should seriously consider identity from different perspectives and categories in the society so as to ensure diversity and equality in the organizational management.

Identity is a multidimensional concept that can be developed at individual, group and organizational level (Puusa, 2006). Nowadays, there is increasing interest in understand identity in organizational control studies. According to Kenny et al. (2011, p.1), ‘the significance of identity was not simply recognized by management, it was identified as something that could be shaped and controlled by management’. The concept of identity was first looked at from a management point of view by F.W.Taylor in 1911. In his opinion, a person’s identity proves to be a barrier to scientific management (Rose, 1988). As he believed that money was the best and only way to motivate people to work effectively, workers should lose their notion of identity so as to be prepared to fit in to different management models (Kenny et al., 2011). In a lower hierarchy level, Taylor’s theory seems to relatively correct. However, studies have shown that workers resisted these ‘scientific’ methods as they considered that being a part of the group was more significant than earning more money (Kenny et al., 2011). Thus, it can be deemed that meaningful work is a strong dynamic of motivation and performance, and identity (e.g feeling a part of the group) is one of the important subjective factors that motivate people to work. This is in line with several commentators of the ‘human relation movement’ which states that identity is no longer to be removed by organizational management; for example Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, and Alderfer’s Relatedness Existence theories. They entirely agreed that employees were stimulated not only by physical factors or money, but also by emotional and social needs in the group (Ross, 1988; Buchanan and Huczynski, 2004). Those needs are strong identification to lead employees to ‘go to extra mile’ (become more flexible and productive) as well as improve their working passion and enthusiasm (‘discretionary effort’) within the organization (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002). Therefore, it can be asserted that identity is the key engine to driving employees’ internal motivation in the organization. This is also supported by Alvesson and Willmott (2002, p. 621), who argue that identity is definitely ‘a significant, neglected and increasingly important modality of organizational control’.

Organizational identity is known as the employees’ view of the organization, which attempts to answer the question of ‘who are we as an organization’ (Kenny et al, 2011). It affords organizations with a feasible framework for understanding their internal behaviors (Whetten, 2006). Albert and Whetten (1985) argue that organizational identity embodies three significant characteristics which are central, distinctive and enduring. Following Albert and Whetten’s (1985) notion, several scholars further identified organizational identity in two different conceptions; realist and constructionist (Gioia and Thomas, 1996; Elstak and Van Riel, 2004). Realists believe that organizational identity is established on the properties of the organization themselves. Conversely, constructionists consider that a set of beliefs is understood by how employees make sense of the organizations. Therefore, through this dynamic, dialectic process it can be proven that employees both shape, and are shaped, by their organizational membership (Puusa, 2006). Meanwhile, it also can further allege that organizations with a strong identity have central attributes, distinctive from other corporations and maintaining that for long-term periods can lead organizations to motivate their employees more effectively and successfully.

The positive impacts of organizational identity could appear in several aspects. Firstly, employees will become more self-managing and prefer to approach their jobs with passion and enthusiasm as well as undertaking their responsibilities seriously (Knights and Willmott, 1999). Secondly, it is an essential approach for an organization to attract high-quality employees in order to embrace employees’ desired values and allow them to treat the values as their own (Kenny et al, 2011). Moreover, it can gain and retain employees’ loyalty, commitment and involvement so as to compensate less job security and employment durability in the workforce (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002). Furthermore, managing through shared values, thoughts and feelings have replaced the original ways of managing behaviors (Knights and Willmott, 1999). This has been further explained by Kenny et al. (2011) who stressed that organizations don’t just want to recruit the people who think that they will fit into the workplace, but they are now more focused on how to shape employees’ sense of identity after they join. As culture is contingent upon identity, managing ‘corporate culture’ is integral to managing identity, which can be seen as the most common way to shape employees’ self-identity and behaviors (Kenny et al., 2011).

On the other hand, organizational identity also brings some problems which organizers have to bear in mind. Firstly, organizational identity attempts to over control employees’ hearts and minds; this can link back to Foucauldian perspective which estimated that employees’ sense of identity can be strongly dominated by ‘enterprise discourse’ (Du Gay, 1996; Kenny et al., 2011). Following this problem, employees’ creativity and innovative skills will minimize or even cannot be discovered in the corporation; therefore it will critically affect organizational improvement and development. Furthermore, employees may feel anxiety or guilty if they attempt to judge or fail to follow the sanctified values of an organization (Schwartz, 1987). Due to the above feelings and matters, ethics has become an ambiguous issue when implementing identity management as organizational control, and it may relate to ‘bureaucratic’ control mechanisms’ problems as well (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002).

Although there are some negative impacts of using identity as a form of organizational control, there are still many famous companies carefully and successfully designing and advertising their corporate values by managing organizational identity, such as Apple, Alibaba and IKEA (Kenny et al., 2011). Therefore, it can be affirmed that organizational identity is not only focusing on one company or region; it becomes more internationalization and globalization at present. Because of this phenomenon, there are increasing numbers of concentrated issues of identity presented in the workplace as well, such as gender and managerial roles issues; the changing idea of professionalism and the international business activities (Fondas, 1997; Alvesson, 2000; Alvesson and Willmott, 2002).

In order to diminish the above issues and manage identity effectively, organizers should provide more opportunity for employees to arrange their agenda and working practices, to maintain a sense of freedom to  help motivate people at work, this is classed as ‘micro-emancipation’ (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002). This sense of freedom could be better enforced to show and understand in a new standard form of organizational control, which is called fun organizational identities. This new form not only encourages diversity and allows employees to express their ‘genuine’ feelings in the workplace, but also assists to increase productivity, creativity, inspiration and reduced employee turnover (Fleming and Sturdy, 2009; Ford et al.,2003). For instance, Southwest Airlines is known as a fun organization to work for, which classes employee satisfaction and customer loyalty as more important than corporate profits. They consider people their ‘single greatest strength and the most enduring long-term competitive advantage’ (Southwest’s Airlines Careers, 2014). Southwest Airlines’ unique identity makes them stand out from all others and delivers benefits to both individuals and the organization. However, there are still a number of disadvantages of having a fun work environment in organizations, such as professionalism at work, reports of sexual harassment and interpersonal conflicts (Ford et al., 2003). Thus, managers should bear those issues in mind and find out solutions as soon as possible so that they can become distinctive to other corporations and reduce the potential risks in the early stage.

Organizations should also be conscious of the variation in levels of identification within their workforce (Dutton et al., 1994). Humphreys and Brown (2002) declare that identification is usually a complex and partial procedure, and they defined this process in three categories, which are dis-identification, schizo-identification and neutral identification. And a similar set of classes has been proposed by Collinson (2003) in three levels, these are, conformist selves, dramaturgical selves and resistant selves. Based on these theories, managers should try to use different methods to manage identity so as to stimulate employees to work harder and perform better and also to obtain a high degree of employees who define themselves as a part of the organization (Kenny et al., 2011).

According to Kenny et al. (2011), organizations can manage identity in five different ways; these are controlling, concealing, exploiting, faking and shaping. In practice, in order to make employees have a sense of belonging, loyalty and commitment, and be willing to promote the organization’s vision, the organizers should focus on managing their identity in the following ways: a) allow employees to see and know about their career planning in the company, thereby creating  hope for them; b) organizations need to explicitly promote the values and vision of the corporation to establish an industry benchmark. For example a hotel brand should treat Accor Hotel Group as their final objective and formulate a long-term, detailed schedule to achieve this goal. This schedule can include how many hotels should open in one year or how this hotel brand can develop in five years or ten years; c) the organization should have strong corporate social responsibility, which includes creating more job opportunities, especially for disabled people, environment protection (e.g haze or flood) and good employee welfare (e.g set up a compliant institution so as to protect employees’ benefits). If organizations can accomplish the above steps successfully, employees will feel part of the organization and will be proud of it, and also will put their shoulders on the wheel in order to achieve their career objectives.

Additionally, organizations should also manage identity in terms of physical and moral support so as to increase employees’ sense of honor in the group. For example a Japanese senior manager will bow his thanks to the best employees every day, and organizations usually would like to hold some activities to let employees vent outside of their work. In 2010, Foxconn had 18 employees attempt to commit suicide with a total of 14 deaths (Moore, 2012). This example shows the importance of managing identity to motivate employees in an organization. Therefore, managers should take into account  Alvesson and Willmott’s (2002) eight methods of regulating identity in organizations, such as knowledge and skills; the rules of the game and hierarchical location, to better understand different ways of managing identity and successfully carry them out in the workplace.

Overall, identity is a true essence of who and what the organization is. It is a significant organizing element for everything people say and do in the workplace and it affects the characters, values, communications, decisions and strategies of the organization. Organization with a strong identity becomes easier to make decisions and solve their internal conflicts. Employees can clearly know what is expected of them, understand the company and also feel part of the team. Ethical ambiguities and some other issues still affect the idea of identity regulation in organizational control. Moreover, due to the fast changing pace of business life at present, identity cannot be ‘enduring’ in the organization and it may change with the surrounding environments. For example, the Equality Act 2010 presents a new ‘protected’ status to certain social groups which may influence employees’ sense of identity and identification. Thus, management practitioners have to deeply understand the different methods of identity management proposed by Kenny et al.’s (2011) and Alvesson and Willmott’s (2002) and then integrate those methods to solve the existing challenges in the working environment so as to successfully use identity as a form in organizational control.


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Tags: Critique, dominant perspectives and frameworks, Organizational Control

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