Some time ago, a dear relation of mine (let’s call her ‘Mimi’) told me that the company she worked for had entered a downward spiral. Budget cuts and lay-offs had become inevitable, leading to considerable unrest among the employees. That’s why a group of managers decided to give staff morale a well-needed boost.

On the one hand, this engendered a variety of well-meant yet hilarious motivational talks: for example, from now on, the people working for the Sales Back Desk were expected to call their office ‘The Party Island’. On the other hand, management hoped to get everyone to pull together with posters full of rousing slogans, and a glossy new style guide.

The one thing they failed to consider is that organising an expensive marketing campaign during a period of austerity measures doesn’t go down well with a lot of employees. I wouldn’t feel particularly amenable either if every morning, I would have to pass a poster screaming ‘It’s make or break time!”

Another source of considerable annoyance and amusement was this rather confusing call for change: “A pan of pea soup tastes even better when you leave it for a bit. But if you wait too long, it starts to smell.”

Normative control

It’s harder to express the output and activities of knowledge workers like Mimi in metres, kilograms or physical units than it is the contributions of your average factory worker, even more because they often know more about their product than the people managing them.

To maintain control, managers in knowledge-intensive companies regularly appeal to employees’ esprit de corps; their mission – with the associated mores and codes. This is called ‘normative control’ in the critical management literature. A carefully-cultivated corporate identity can help ensure that employees are willing to go that extra mile. Not because they’re explicitly forced to do so, but because they’ve internalised a specific complex set of expectations and preferred behaviour.

And this doesn’t have to be a problem: if your own values align with those of the company, you’ll probably adopt its norms like a duck takes to water. But if this isn’t the case, people can get cynical, indifferent and frustrated – particularly when a company’s rhetoric is at odds with its actions.

So ultimately, Mimi quit her job – despite having an open-ended contract and a nice bunch of colleagues. Pea soup will never taste the same for her.