The significance of suffering in organisations

 Managerial and organisational research has typically emphasised that the control of the worker is necessary to ensure the success of the organisation.

Studies have also revealed that the enforcement of similar modes of control often appears to yield contradictory outcomes in different settings, yet critical literature has offered little theory as to why this is. Understanding workers various responses is vital, as it informs an understanding of how and why control is accepted or resisted at different times in contemporary organisations.

Critical literature does, however, illuminate important considerations in understanding workers diverse responses: workers may willingly reproduce modes of control which they interpret as compatible with their self- identity, and as important in sustaining their autonomous sense of self.

These considerations inform Professor Michael Gill’s paper ‘The Significance of Suffering in Organizations: understanding variation in workers’ responses to multiple modes of control’, the findings of which reconcile several divergent findings across different streams of critical research.

The paper outlines two conceptual dimensions, which underpin a framework explaining workers’ diverse responses to multiple modes of organisational control. Gill employs empirical examples to illustrate how workers’ experiences can trigger processes that generate different intensities of compliance and resistance.

The dimension of compatibility considers workers’ subjective experiences of the fit between their personhood and modes of control, where alignment can inspire fulfilment and misalignment can prompt suffering. The dimension of coherence considers worker’s perceptions of the consistency between control modes, which can be fragmented or unified to reinforce organisationally prescribed goals and processes.

The framework yields four ideal types of interaction between modes of control that workers can experience: complementing, coexisting, competing and clashing.

Complementing interactions refers to high compatibility between workers and modes of control, suggesting that workers experience the interactions between modes of control as beneficial, serving as a source of dignity and engendering a positive sense of self. Coexisting interactions reflects the idea that different modes of control can operate in parallel or assume dominance at different times, which means that while modes of control may facilitate fulfilment, their beneficial properties are not fully realised. Competing combinations of control are characterised by a low degree of compatibility such that they prompt suffering and a low degree of coherence which allows workers to evade this suffering. Clashing interactions, are characterised by a low degree of compatibility and a high degree of coherence, such that they generate suffering that is hard to escape.

This framework makes three contributions to existing critical research on organisations. First, it helps to illustrate how workers experience and produce each ideal type in specific circumstances; second, the ideal types help to reframe ongoing deliberations concerning the nature of resistance, and third, provides a key implication that one way in which workers experience suffering in organisations is when modes of control damage aspects of their personhood.

These findings suggest that, while there remains a need to identify and be aware of unnecessary suffering within organisations, suffering is more than just a potential outcome of control. Suffering is also an explanatory concept that can help to illuminate how and why processes and resistance unfold across settings. Gill proposes that the concept of suffering, therefore, plays an important role in explaining the dynamic relationship between control and resistance across different channels.

Gill concludes by encouraging further work that brings the study of both fulfilment and suffering to the fore, not just as outcomes of control, but as valuable theoretical concepts that can illuminate workplace dynamics.

‘The Significance of Suffering in Organizations: Understanding Variation in Workers’ Responses to Multiple Modes of Control.’ Is written by Michael Gill and is published in the Academy of Management Review.