Critical Thinking Exercise 2: Informal culture at work

Critical Thinking Exercise 2: Informal culture at work

One of the many findings from the Hawthorne Studies (discussed in Chapter 4) was that even when workers were presented with significant material incentives for increasing their pace of work, they typically refused, preferring instead to give up significant bonuses (Vallas, 2012). While we might assume that material incentives would motivate harder work, this didn’t happen. Why did the workers behave in this way? One explanation was that they were acting in accordance with norms and codes of behaviour that had been established by the workgroups that overrode and could punish self-seeking behaviour. While management may have tried to push up performance with a ‘logic of efficiency’, workers displayed a different logic, that of a sense of belonging and recognition that group solidarity could bring about, which took precedence over management’s logic of efficiency.

Have you witnessed the ‘logic of efficiency’ from a management that assumes that productivity can continually be improved? Have you witnessed the Hawthorne workers’ response? What examples have you seen of how the informal culture of workers stands at odds with the formal rules and expectations of managers?

If you would like to read more about informal cultures and their impact see Halle (1984), Vallas (2003; 2006) Orr (1996) Weeks (2004) or Sallaz (2002; 2009).


Halle, D. (1984) America’s working man: work, home and politics among blue-collar property owners, Chicago: Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Orr, J.E. (1996) Talking about machines: an ethnography of a modern job, Ithica: NY: Cornell University School of Industrial and Labour Relations.

Sallaz, J.J. (2002) House Rules: autonomy and interests among contemporary casino croupiers, Work and Occupations, 29, 4, 394-427.

Sallaz, J.J. (2009) The labor of luck: casino capitalism in the United States and South Africa, Berkely CA: University of California Press.

Vallas, S.P. (2003) Why teamwork fails: obstacles to workplace change in four manufacturing plants, American Sociological Review, 8, 2, 223-250.

Vallas, S.P. (2006) Empowerment Redux: structure agency and the re-making of managerial authority,American Journal of Sociology, 111, 5, 1677-1717.

Vallas, S.P. (2012) Work: a critique, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Weeks, J. (2004) Unpopular culture: the ritual of complaint in a British bank, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.