Although scholars take differing perspectives on the purposes and functions of control and authority, the definitions of these two terms are quite clear. In an organization, to “control” means to constrain work processes, human activity, and environmental events so that the organization creates value. That is, a refrigerator-manufacturing business must control work processes so that it can produce refrigerators that work correctly. The company must control human activity so that the production staff actually gets the refrigerators produced on time, and the company must control the flow of new technology from the environment so that it can incorporate new innovations into its production.
In an organization, “authority” refers to that which makes control legitimate. The individuals working for an organization must see the control methods as legitimate; that is, the organization must control human activity reasonably, appropriately, and lawfully. A subordinate should accept the orders of a supervisor as long as the orders are reasonable, appropriate, and lawful. If a subordinate refuses legitimate orders, the subordinate gets fired. If the supervisor gives illegitimate orders, the supervisor gets fired. Regardless of perspective, control and authority both become manifest through the communication practices in an organization. For instance, a boss gives orders directly to a subordinate; a human resources department writes down employee guidelines and regulations; a company vision statement unobtrusively guides worker decision-making.
The Problem Of Control
Most often we consider organizational control as something to be resisted. Freudian psychology teaches us that humans are naturally autonomous beings and that we resist whatever constrains our autonomy. Thus, we would naturally resist a boss telling us what to do or a receptionist forcing us to follow a rigid bureaucratic rule, even if our resistance is no more than a simple frown and feeling of dislike. Hence organizations face the difficult communicative task of getting all these “autonomous” individuals to constrain their behavior in such a way as to enable the organization to create value. An organization needs its workers to show up for work, preferably on time. It needs workers to get products “out the door” on schedule. It needs workers to follow safety regulations and refrain from discriminatory practices. Organizational control presents us with a paradox: we naturally resist constraints on our autonomy, but we must willingly constrain our autonomy for our organizations to create value.
Experience of this paradox marks our everyday life in an organization. We feel a desire to be autonomous, but at the same time we recognize the need to constrain our actions so that we can get productive organizational work done with our fellow humans. Commonly, we deal with this paradox by entering into something of a contractual agreement with the organization. For example, when an organization hires an individual (or an individual agrees to join an organization, such as agreeing to accept enrollment in a particular university), the two parties enter into an exchange relationship. The individual agrees to labor in some way for the organization (working, studying, or volunteering), while the organization agrees to provide some form of reward for the individual’s labor (salary, a degree at the end of a program of study, or a feeling of having contributed to the common good). As a part of this exchange relationship, the individual agrees (most often tacitly) to allow the organization to control his or her behavior in ways functional and appropriate for the organization, such as showing up for work on time, wearing a particular uniform, following the company’s customer service rules, supervising subordinates in appropriate ways, and so forth. The organization now has the legitimacy to exercise that authority to control the individual’s behavior (in reasonable, appropriate, and lawful ways). The practice of control, as seen in this exchange relationship, is an inherently communicative process.
This exchange relationship of control, as with any communication process, is fraught with difficulties. If a firm fails to control the organization’s work effectively, then the organization itself will fail. Bosses can bully and intimidate subordinates. We may need to work overtime to meet a deadline and miss a family activity. Yet, we still join organizations, we still subject ourselves to the control of the organization. We need what our organizations give us, so we willingly (in most cases) submit and let our autonomy be constrained.
Therein lies what scholars call “the problem of control”: how does an organization gain and maintain the uncoerced obedience of its members? The word “uncoerced” is important here because we assume that humans willingly (more or less) join organizations, as depicted in the exchange relationship described above. Thus, we willingly allow the organization to control our behavior rather than having the organization coerce us into compliance, such as in a prison. In an organization, we assume that we have a choice in terms of control.
The problem of control has vexed organizational scholars for many years. Most notable among these scholars was the famed German sociologist Max Weber (e.g., Weber 1958; 1962; 1978), who wrote in the early 1900s and gave us far-reaching fundamental concepts and frameworks for analyzing organizational control and authority. So powerful was Weber’s work that his thinking has significantly shaped how we understand the practice of organizational control. The different elements of control and authority described in the remainder of this section all either extend directly from his work or have been shaped by scholars influenced by his ideas.
Typologies Of Control And Authority
Control becomes manifest in organizations as a communicative system; that is, the patterns of discourse and activity that legitimately constrain work in directions functional for the organization. Scholars have identified four main systems of control with the first three found in the work of Edwards (1979). Simple control refers to the direct and personal type of control most often seen in a supervisor–subordinate relationship. The supervisor simply communicates orders directly to the subordinate. Technical control refers to a structural system developed around organizational processes, such as how the speed of an assembly line controls the pace of worker activity. Bureaucratic control identifies the system of control that derives from organizational hierarchy and rules, such as seen in an organizational chart or in employee regulations or contracts.
Tompkins and Cheney (1985) and Barker (1993) identified a fourth system of control, concertive control, a system that grows from modern day peer and team relationships at work. Concertive control extends from the peer pressures and expectations of peers as they are communicated to others. Control, when viewed across these four types, becomes more unobtrusive as we move from simple to technical to bureaucratic to peer. While we can readily experience the simple control of a boss or the need to maintain the pace of the assembly line, the rules of a bureaucracy or the expectations of a peer are much more subtle and difficult for us to experience as a form of control.
Our primary typology of authority comes directly from Weber’s work. Weber identified three types of authority, three foundations for legitimately controlling our behavior in organizations. In charismatic authority, legitimacy comes from the compelling personal power of an inspirational leader, such as a visionary company president. In traditional authority, legitimacy derives from the organization’s (or broader society’s) culture and traditions, as found in the tradition of a family business passing from one member to the next. In bureaucratic authority, legitimacy resides in the hierarchical structure and rational rule system of the bureaucracy.
While Weber’s typology is valuable, control scholars find more utility in understanding the locus of authority in a control system, as in understanding where the source of authoritative legitimacy resides in a communicative control system (Barker 1999). For example, in simple control, the locus of authority resides in the power of the immediate supervisor. In technical control, authority extends from the power of the technology or work processes. In bureaucratic control, authority resides in the power of the organization’s hierarchy and practical rules. In concertive control, peer relationships and shared values form the source of legitimate authority.
Three Perspectives On Control
Control scholars generally take three perspectives on control. Scholars may take a managerial perspective and study how to make a control system more efficient and effective. These scholars focus on the outcomes of control and may study how to improve superior–subordinate communication or work processes so that an organization increases productivity. Other communication scholars may take a critical perspective and study the effects and consequences of our control practices on individual autonomy. These scholars focus on the outcomes of power and domination in control systems and may study issues such as workplace bullying, resistance to unfair practices, the negative effects of peer expectations.
Communication scholars also take a discursive perspective which is concerned with the effects and consequences of our control practices as systems of meaning creation. These scholars have studied such theories as identification, which is concerned with how individuals come to create their identity around the espoused values of the organization, thus unobtrusively acting in ways functional for the organization. Discourse-focused scholars also develop systematic theories for understanding the role of control in meaning creation, as found in the theory of structuration.
Direction Of Discursive Research On Control
Communication scholars are increasingly taking a discursive approach and focusing on how we construct meaningful discourses of control and the need for nuanced and sophisticated understandings of how we make ethical decisions about the reasonableness, appropriateness, and legality of control and authority (Sewell & Barker 2006). Such a concern for ethics helps bring together the three perspectives on control and enhances our knowledge of legitimate authority and truly productive control practices. Barker (2005) recently argued that we should engage control by studying the discursive levels at which we make ethical decisions about control: the levels of peer, hierarchical, and governance relationships.
As globalization increases, as we work together in more collaborative, cooperative, and connected relationships, our need for effective but nonoppressive methods of control will also increase. Humans and organizations will still enter into exchange relationships regarding control. Our practice of control and our exercise of authority will still be tenuous. The best direction for future research involves making the morality of control more transparent and finding ways for us to choose control practices with which we are comfortable.
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