Compliance Theory of Organizations

  • Cassandra DodgeEmail author
Living reference work entry


Coercive Power Extrinsic Reward Organizational Representative Intrinsic Reward Organizational Power 
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Alienative involvement: An intense, negative involvement orientation of lower participants within an organization (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

Calculative involvement: Low intensity involvement orientation of lower participants within an organization. Can be positive or negative in direction (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

Coercive power: The use of force and fear by organizational representatives to control lower participants (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

Involvement: Spectrum of commitment lower participants have within an organization (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

Moral involvement: Intense, positive involvement orientation of lower participants within an organization (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

Normative power: The allocation of symbolic or intrinsic rewards and deprivations by organizational representatives as a means of control lower participants (Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012).

Power: The ability of organizational representatives to induce or influence lower participants to carry out directives to behave in a prescribed manner (Etzioni and Lehman 1980).

Remunerative/utilitarian power: The use of extrinsic rewards by organizational representatives to control lower participants (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).


Organizations differ greatly from naturally occurring groups in that they are designed specifically to address certain goals and are constantly and deliberately redesigned or restructured to meet these goals. Social units, such as families, do change over time, but not in the same methodical way nor with the goal of promoting productivity toward a common goal. It is for this reason that organizations must be approached differently in sociological research (Etzioni 1968).

In the study of organizations, researchers attempt to identify common structures used to solve problems, increase efficiency and organization productivity, and meet stakeholder expectations. The patterns identified are used to develop organizational theories, which serve as the framework for understanding how groups operate. Through research, best practices for optimal function can be identified. However, like all areas of sociological research, there are several theories that have been applied to organizations, to varying degrees of success, which focus on different components of organizational structure and relationships.

Compliance theory was first proposed by sociologist Amitai Etzioni in 1969, though the development of the theory was apparent as early as 1961 (Etzioni 1961, 1968; Etzioni and Lehman 1980). Not to be confused with the legal theory of the same name, compliance theory focuses on the relationship between actors within an organization: the organizational representatives and lower-level participants (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012). More specifically, the theory is intended to help examine the relationship dynamics between those who hold power in an organization and those who are subjected to that power. Lower-level participants are subordinates who can have formal or informal roles within the organization. For example, a low-ranking enlistee in the military would be considered a low-level formal participant in a military hierarchy, while a parishioner would be an informal lower-level participant within a church. Individuals are identified as lower-level participants as long as they display a high level of adherence to one of three dimensions of participation: involvement, subordination, and performance (Etzioni and Lehman 1980).

High-level participants are of little concern in compliance theory as it is expected that these actors have a permanent power advantage over those ranked lower. These individuals experience less subordination, have higher expectations for performance, and are likely more committed to the organization and its goals. Gaining compliance from these individuals is not as much of a problem, and the dynamics are less stark. Organizational boundaries, the definitions of who is or is not considered a part of the organization, are determined using the same criteria. Individuals who are identified with at least one of the dimensions of participation are considered to be participants in the organization. If the individual scores low on all three dimensions, such as customers or clients, they are considered to be outsiders and cannot be analyzed utilizing a compliance theory framework (Etzioni and Lehman 1980). The key components of compliance theory are types of power utilized by an organization, the types of involvement of the lower-level participants, and the resulting relationship between the two (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012).

Types of Power

According to Etzioni and Lehman (1980), organizational power differs based of the means chosen to control participants. Such means may be physical, material, or symbolic in nature. Compliance theory classifies organizational power as coercive, remunerative or utilitarian, and normative. Coercive power utilizes force or the threat of physical sanctions to control lower-level participants. Coercive power structures are common in prison and military settings. In remunerative power (also referred to as utilitarian power) constructs, organizational representatives control lower-level participants through extrinsic rewards. These include salary, commissions, job security, and more. Normative power rests on the allocation of symbolic or intrinsic rewards to exert control over lower-level participants. Some examples of normative power structures include churches, professional associations, and schools (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012).

Normative power can be achieved in one of two ways. The first, referred to as pure normative power, calls for organizational representatives to manipulate perceptions of esteem and prestige and utilize ritualistic symbols to achieve compliance. The second, also known as social power, refers to the power peers have over behavior. Both pure normative and social powers are categorized as normative power for organizations due to how they are used by the organization to control participants. Pure normative power can be exercised directly by organizational representatives; however, social power requires representatives to manipulate the informal group in such a way as to ensure the peer group controls its members in a favorable way. For example, a teacher with a misbehaving student can gain compliance through pure normative power by helping the student identify with the goals of the lesson. Alternatively, the teacher could manipulate the class environment in such a way that the student’s peers will encourage compliance (Etzioni and Lehman 1980).

Types of Involvement

While all three types of organizational power are useful in obtaining compliance, their effectiveness largely rests on the involvement of lower-level participants within the organization (Lunenburg and Ornstein 2012). In the context of compliance theory of organizations, involvement occurs on a spectrum of intensity and direction; that is, the involvement can be positive or negative and at a range of intensity. Etzioni and Lehman (1980) categorized involvement as either alienative, calculative, or moral.

Alienative involvement is an intense negative orientation. Lower-level participants are alienated from their respective organizations. Examples of alienative involvement include prison inmates, military enlistees in basic training, or patients in custodial mental institutions. There is animosity, even hostility between the participants and the organization. Calculative involvement is more neutral. Lower-level participants at this point of the spectrum have a low intensity involvement and may perceive their involvement in a positive or negative way. This orientation is common between merchants and regular business contacts. While there is no blatant animosity, there is no indication of loyalty. Moral involvement designates an orientation of high intensity which is positive in direction. Participants of moral involvement are loyal to the organization. Examples include parishioners of a church, or devoted members of a political party (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012).

Like normative power, moral involvement can also be categorized into two parts: pure moral involvement and social involvement. The difference between these two is based of the emphasis of the orientation and the direction of the relationship. Pure moral involvement is characterized by the internalization of the norms and identification with authority that occurs in vertical relationships. This is found in relationships between teachers and students, or leaders to followers. Social moral involvement occurs in horizontal relationships within a primary group. Individual participants may be sensitive to the pressures within the group (Etzioni and Lehman 1980).

Compliance Relationships

The two elements of compliance theory are combined in one of nine possible compliance relationship types: coercive-alienative, coercive-calculative, coercive-moral, remunerative/utilitarian-alienative, remunerative/utilitarian-calculative, remunerative/utilitarian-moral, normative-alienative, normative-calculative, and normative-moral. Three of these types are more likely to occur than the remaining six types. These three types are also referred to as congruent relationships (Etzioni and Lehman 1980).

Congruent relationships occur when the type of participant involvement is reflective of the type of organizational power utilized. Coercive power, for example, causes alienation while also working as the most effective response to individuals categorized as alienative in involvement (e.g., prison staff to inmate relationship). Etzioni referred this type of congruent relationship as coercive compliance. Similarly, remunerative/utilitarian-calculative relationships (also known as utilitarian compliance) and normative-moral relationships (normative compliance) are the most common and efficient. Organizations experience a significant amount of pressure to become as efficient as possible. Congruent relationships are more effective in achieving organizational goals, so it is unsurprising that these three types are more common (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012).

Incongruent relationships, the remaining six, do exist, but are not as successful. The discrepancy between the power and involvement dynamics may result from constraints on either component. Organizations have limited control over the power available to them. A lack of resources or headway to wield power in a way that is appropriate to control participants can deteriorate the organization’s stability. For example, external policies may eliminate the ability for an organization to utilize coercive power even though the individuals are characterized as alienative in involvement. Organizations also lack the ability to effect external influences on the individual involvement of lower-level participants. Outside of organizational influences, involvement is also dependent on membership in other groups, values, and personality structures. The combination of these pitfalls can lead to incongruent relationships (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006).

The major hypothesis underlying contingency theory is “to the degree that the environment of the organization allows, organizations tend to shift their compliance structure from incongruent to congruent types and organizations which have congruent compliance structures tend to resist factors pushing them toward incongruent compliance structures” (Etzioni and Lehman 1980, p. 93, emphasis in original). This is achieved through either a shift in power applied by the organizational representatives or through a change in individual involvement. Etzioni and Lehman (1980) also suggested that studies on organizational change, conflict, and strain would benefit by focusing on incongruent organizations.

Power Specialization

The scope of the theory would suggest that every organization utilizes only one type of power, which is obviously untrue. Compliance theorists do acknowledge this issue. They posit that organizations, while using more than one type of power to control lower-level participants, rely on a single type more often than any of the others. This phenomenon, power specialization, is necessary as the use of two types of power over a single group simultaneously will neutralize any controlling effect the powers have. Much like the problems faced by incongruent compliance relationships, when the individual level of involvement does not match with the power utilized, the effectiveness of the action is reduced. For example, the therapeutic treatment of a person with mental illness may have more success when remunerative or normative power is used; however, if this treatment is conducted in a custodial environment, the coercive power used to maintain control reduces the effectiveness of the treatment (Etzioni and Lehman 1980). Similarly, the organizational shift from corporal punishment can be argued for as coercive power negates the functionality of normative power within the classroom (Bulach et al. 2008).

There are a few circumstances in which organizations successfully utilize two power types simultaneously with positive effect. Combat units were identified as a dual structure that used normative and coercive power (Etzioni 1961). The symbolic rewards, such as prestige, are used in conjunction with the coercive threat of force often utilized in military structures. The result is a highly disciplined, loyal, and proud group of individuals. Unions and churches were also identified as dual structures, remunerative/utilitarian and normative. Both may have direct control over physical and symbolic rewards, gaining increased control over the individual participants as a whole (Etzioni 1961; Etzioni and Lehman 1980).


In the area of organizational theories, compliance theory specializes in analyzing the relationship and power dynamics within an organization. Outside actors may interact with the organization and its members; however, the low level of adherence to any of the dimensions of participation eliminates them from consideration within the framework of this theory. Similarly, lower-level participants are more important that higher-level participants within the theory’s framework as controlling a lower-level participant may be more difficult and the largest differences in levels of compliance are found when studying lower-level participants.

The primary components of compliance theory are the types of power used by organizations and their representatives and the types of involvement for participants. Coercive power is characterized as the use of force or threat of force to maintain control. Remunerative or utilitarian power utilizes extrinsic rewards (such as monetary benefits) to establish control. Normative control employs symbolic and intrinsic rewards to encourage compliance (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012). Involvement types are categorized based off of the intensity of the involvement and its direction. Alienative involvement is an intense, negative involvement orientation of lower participants within an organization. On the far opposite side of the spectrum, moral involvement is described as an intense, positive involvement orientation. Calculative involvement is more neutral with a low-intensity involvement orientation in either a positive or negative direction (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Lunenburg 2012).

The majority of organizations can be categorized into one of three congruent relationship dynamics: coercive compliance (coercive power and alienative involvement), utilitarian compliance (remunerative/utilitarian power and calculative involvement), and normative compliance (normative power and moral involvement) (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006; Lunenburg 2012). Incongruent relationships are possible, but the underlying hypothesis of contingency theory suggests that either organizations will shift the type of power used, or a change in involvement type will occur to achieve congruency between the power and involvement factors. Additionally, organizations will resist change that threatens the congruency of the compliance relationships (Etzioni and Lehman 1980; Hyle 2006).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of CriminologyUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA