Old mindset in a new world: Disciplinary power in organizations

This article was originally published on our Medium Platform Rethinking Organizations.

“New Normal” is a term that suddenly showed up with Covid-19 to refer to a new way of living and interacting with other people, the environment, and everything around us. The pandemic led people to create and experience new life dynamics regardless of the society they are in. Among these unique experiences, remote working is one aspect that directly affects most people.

Organizations, as living systems made up of people, had to endure these disruptions as well. Hence, they established a new working process through novel technological tools. The current understanding of hierarchy and power relations became even more evident; organizations started searching for new ways to “manage” people as they always do. This old management mindset took itself as a principle of “disciplining employees” to keep the working structures ongoing. With this mindset in mind, disciplinary power relations within organizations took up a new “digital” mask within a remote working environment.

Disciplinary power was introduced by Michel Foucault, a contemporary scholar interested in power relations in modern societies. In its essence, the term refers to all sets of activities, techniques, and discourses in modern societies to fix and regulate people’s movements. By doing that, people are forced to behave in a way that increases their performance.

According to Foucault, there are three methods of disciplinary power:

Hierarchical observation
Normalizing judgment
Examination

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Hierarchical observation means that there is a hierarchical relationship between the observer and observed, and under the observation, observed people shape their behavior in a certain way. Foucault gives Panopticon examples to elaborate on his claim. Panopticon is an architectural model designed for prisons to exercise control over prisoners by creating a continuously watched feeling. In the Panopticon, hierarchical relations are embodied in architectural design. In this case, “observed” is never sure whether they are actively observed or not. Accordingly, they adjust their behavior as if they are being monitored. This sense of continuous observation leads to a particular internalized auto censure mechanism where one behaves according to the norms without any specific warning.

The second method is normalizing judgment, which represents the fact that authorities and experts’ expectations create society standards. With time and with free will, people try to fit these standards. Because people see these standards as absolute truth, authorities’ values and norms are internalized and accepted inevitably and understood as a single, neutral fact.

The last method is “examination.” This method focuses on the knowledge produced by examining people’s behaviors and actions. Knowledge becomes a coercion tool as it paves the way to predict people’s behaviors properly. Based on the expertise resulting from the investigation, people may be “controlled” much more efficiently. Moreover, this knowledge goes hand in hand with normalizing judgment processes to create common standards to be followed.

Organizations with a mindset of control and discipline where employees are seen as resources to be tapped into, rather than humans with agency, tend to exercise these power relations in various ways. Be it through architectural stance: in the glass-covered executive offices or open office designs where everyone can be seen and heard. Be it through a strict organizational perspective: in monitoring and performance systems. All this may seem like a mimicking of hierarchical observation in modern organizations.

Besides, an organization’s rules and standards may drive from executives’ expectations or profit-oriented goals. In this light, employees’ needs, wants, or environmental and social concerns are overlooked. With time, employees internalize these norms, standards, and values, either consciously or unconsciously. This can be linked to normalizing judgment in Foucault’s perspective. Similarly, internal reward systems pushing the employees to exceed their previous success levels or collecting data to see if the work done by the employees meet the specified quotas can be an outcome of the examination.

Some organizations looked into new observation and monitoring systems to keep the status quo; some took the window of opportunity to rethink how they interact with employees and pursue their working processes.

There is a window of opportunity for organizations to rethink management in a general sense. These days are valuable times to query what we did, what we should do, how we can do for people, organizations, the natural environment, and all living creatures instead of limiting ourselves to thinking about ways to “manage.” It is clear that discipline-focused methods are neither efficient nor sustainable be it in the old be it in the new world. A workplace that provides meaning to all employees will be the ones to survive in the upcoming years against all disruptions.

What do you think about disciplinary power relations in organizations? How did these relations change with the pandemic?