Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.3.5 Organisations as psychic prisons

Although we emphasised in the introduction to this chapter that we construct our own images of organisations, Morgan argues that ‘human beings have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation’ (Morgan, 2006, p. 207) and that because organisations are held together by people’s ideas (conscious and unconscious) about what the organisation is, people find it hard to think of other ways of conceptualising how they might do things. They become prisoners of their own ideas. This is the second metaphor we explore.

Flexibility or the new Taylorism?

Call centres have been technology driven. They are the product of a combination of complex computerised systems, which allow the trained call-operator access to every customer’s account and to every relevant element of the company’s operations, and the automated call distribution system (ACD), which does away with the need to for a switchboard and allows management to fully monitor and analyse every call. The technology, however, has produced some of the worst features of mass communication. Simon Roncoroni of L&R reported at a 1997 JPD conference that he has seen ‘offices where individuals sit in tiny pigpens with high screens round them, or in a long line as though they were in a factory’.

There are call centres which resemble the industrial sweatshops of the past, involving very cramped conditions for staff who work on their computers throughout their shift under very tightly controlled conditions. Those on specialised sales areas even have a script written for them so that it is easy to believe that their individuality is being negated. In many ways this is identical to the assembly line created by Ford engineers from the theories of Fredrick Taylor and parodied by Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times. It is as far removed from a flexible environment as you can get.

Lack of control over working time and methods is a great contributor to stress. It becomes, as Merilyn Armitage (1997) has called it, a ‘psychic prison’ from which inmates are tempted to use any device to escape, including continuing to speak to a caller who has long since hung up so no one else can get through. Absenteeism and sickness levels are notoriously high – one centre experienced a 20 per cent absence rate according to a survey carried out by the Merchants Group.

A further ratchet of control is secured by tying the pay system to an individual’s performance, measured (so accurately) by the number of successful calls per hour. To complete the picture, the disciplinary system comes into force when a print-out shows that the employee does not appear to be earning his or her keep. There is some evidence of a rapid ‘burn-out’ after only 12 to 20 months’ service (Welch, 1997); Vodafone’s personnel manager is quoted in this article as expecting only a year’s service from the typical applicant. A study of 106 units by the Merchants Group (Personnel Today, 1997) found that absenteeism averaged 4.8 per cent, compared with the CBI average figure of 3.7 for all employees. The report implied that a rate over 4 per cent indicated some kind of problem with stress, morale or integrity.

(Source: Stredwick and Ellis, 1998, pp. 166–7)

Stop and reflect

To what extent are these practices reflected in your own experience of work today?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Morgan argues that this psychic prison metaphor is useful in encouraging people to think outside of the box – a phrase that in itself suggests a trap – and begin to think outside of the ideas that constrain them. Control may, in the call centre, have become counter-productive, but people find it hard to think of ways of involving workers in the organisation other than by increasing control.

This feature of how the workers are monitored and controlled in both automated factories and call centres was also explored by Michel Foucault (1979), a French philosopher and historian, who argued that surveillance and discipline of this kind was a central feature of the ‘discourse’ or frame of reference of management. By creating a discourse about how the organisation should operate, the powerful – i.e. managers – are able to control the workforce even when the latter think they are making their own choices about how they work. The following excerpt from Pugh and Hickson (2007) illustrates how Foucault saw power operating in the organisation.

The Foucault project that has had the biggest impact on organization theory is his analysis of power and authority in the organization. The organizations that he considers are those where the exercise of power in their everyday working is very visible (e.g., prisons, armies, hospitals, and schools). In these organizations, the warders, officers, doctors, and schoolmasters legitimately exercise considerable powers of discipline and control over the other members. His major work, Discipline andPunish: The Birth of the Prison, is a historical examination of the treatment of prisoners in the French penal system. …[H]e does not use the word history but rather genealogy to identify his analytical concerns. Genealogy is a ‘form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses and domains of objects.’ …

It is the discourse or frame of reference of those involved that determines the way they think and act, and therefore how the organization and those in it function. The nature of the discourse explains the way in which organizations emerge, develop, and sustain themselves. …

Discourse, as Foucault formulates it, may be considered as the rules of the game for those in the organization. It is the way of thought that they take for granted. It shows not just in what they say, but also in the arrangements and technological devices that are used for control.

Here Foucault takes up the notion of the panopticon as designed by the early 19th-century British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham developed a theoretical design for a prison building that allowed the warden to continually survey many prisoners, each in own cell, while not being seen himself. Thus, the prisoners could not know whether they were being watched (hence panopticon, or all-seeing machine). The aim, in addition to being a cost-effective, low-staffed prison, was to instill correct behavior into the prisoners. Because they cannot know if they were being watched, they have to act properly all the time and so they internalize the rules. In Foucault’s terms, the physical setting is thus part of the discourse.

In organizational life, what is considered as true are not objective facts but what is part of the discourse. For example, it may have been established that managerial work is worth more and should be paid more than physical work, and this is accepted without question. But only certain facts are regarded as knowledge, whereas other facts are omitted. In a discussion about the closure of a plant, for example, the profitable operation of the company will be taken to be part of the discourse. But the consequent economic and psychological disruption to redundant long-serving workers may not be included in the discourse, being deemed irrelevant to the company’s performance. Prohibitions on discourse by the powerful serve to order and control it against the resistances of the rest.

Surveillance and discipline are also crucial parts of the discourse by which the powerful establish their ‘truth’ in organizations. Writing in the 1970s, Foucault presciently focuses on surveillance as the key control process of the powerful, even before modern technological developments such as closed-circuit television (CCTV), email trails, and large-scale computer databases vastly increased the reach of this process. So, ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’

The aim of the discourse is thus to establish what is taken to be ‘normal’ by all the participants. But Foucault does not regard this argument as meaning that the powerful in organizations can simply impose their domination on the powerless. Power is relational. The discourse is a battlefield in which the powerful fight for their conceptions of truth and the powerless have ways of resisting. It may be established that joining trades unions or going on strike are also normal parts of the discourse. … For the powerful, of course, such resistance is itself a justification of the need for surveillance and discipline.

So the basic question that Foucauldian analysts ask is, What is the discourse and how is it being formed? Barbara Townley has applied this approach to human resource management. An employment contract must leave much of the relationship between the organization and the individual undetermined. It can specify the system of remuneration to be paid, but can be only very general about the commitment and effort required from an employee. How, then, is the discourse governing these to be established? Managements acquire knowledge about employees by the application of personality and aptitude tests, grading systems, incentive schemes, developmental appraisals, or training programs. The results of these procedures do not constitute objective facts that are value neutral. What they also do is give more information about the employee and thus increase the opportunities for classification, evaluation, and control by top management – while at the same time establishing in the discourse that this is a normal, acceptable way to proceed.

Similarly, the establishment of bureaucracies … or the introduction of scientific management … are not only, or primarily, for efficiency, as their proponents argue. Their aim is to obtain knowledge to enable the organizationally powerful to establish the discourse that normalizes their control. … Foucault coined the term governmentality to mean the strategies both of the organizational governance of those at the top and the self-governance of those below. The aims of modern accounting and IT systems are, likewise, to establish governmentality by obtaining knowledge to make the managers in the organization more open to both higher control and self-control.

(Source: Pugh and Hickson, 2007, pp. 112–14)

Foucault’s point about the ‘panoptic prison’ is that surveillance is covert and the fact that the prisoners do not know whether they are being watched is what imposes ‘self discipline’. Although nowadays many management thinkers argue that the approach to controlling what people do is more people-centred, whether through the human relations school and the Hawthorne effect or by attempts to manage organisational culture, others, such as Grey (2005), argue that surveillance still lies at the heart of the matter.

Stop and reflect

To what extent are modern techniques of surveillance used in workplaces today? What issues does this raise for you as a manager?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Pugh and Hickson mention the pervasiveness now of CCTV, email trails, databases and, in many organisations such as supermarkets, the use of mystery shoppers. Nowadays, if you are on an organisation’s website, feedback will often be solicited to establish how happy you are with the service received. How often does your call to a supplier start with ‘calls may be monitored for training purposes’? This raises ethical issues in the workplace – where does the boundary between what someone does at work and in their leisure time end for the employer. Many employees set up groups on Facebook or other social networking sites, and the downside is that some people have lost their jobs over comments made there about their employers. Some employers have CCTV in the office to deter minor thefts. There are no right answers to these questions, but they merit thought to understand what is ethical for you.