49: Engineered Culture and Normative Control – Gideon Kunda (Part 1)

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Originally published in 1992, Gideon Kunda’s ethnographic study of a high-tech corporation altered the discourse on organizational culture. “Tech,” the firm being studied, was a firm on the rise and saw itself as a leader and ground breaker in the rapidly growing high-tech industries of the 1980s. But as the firm grew from a modest couple hundred to tens of thousands of employees and multiple sites, Tech undertook an effort to indoctrinate its members with its tried-and-true formula for success — hard work, sacrifice, and belief in the company. The degree to which this indoctrination occurred was extensive, from the choreographed leader messages, trained cultural experts and internal publications to the highly competitive and cut-throat nature of project work. Kunda captured it all in gripping detail. The centerpiece of Kunda’s thesis was Tech’s exercise of normative control. This was ironic in a way given how Tech’s professed culture valued self-determination and autonomy. But, the rewards and sanctions were constructed to enforce a particular form of autonomy, one in which Tech extracted the most out of its people while breaking their lives in the process. Does this mean ‘normative control’ as a mechanism for mission accomplishment is bad? As we dove into the text and applied its lessons to present-day matters, the question is actually difficult to answer as there are many factors to consider. Listen as we wrestle with this extraordinary and provocative text!

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