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Who's the Boss? Exploring the Dynamics of the Worker-Manager-Customer Triangle of Power in Banking Work Open Access


Other title
customer control
emotional labour
service work
employment relationship
triangle of power
service triangle
banking work
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Silver, William A
Supervisor and department
Dr Karen Hughes (Sociology and Business)
Examining committee member and department
Krahn, Harvey (Sociology)
Hughes, Karen (Sociology and Business)
Reay, Trish (Business)
Maroto, Michelle (Sociology)
Mirchandani, Kiran (Leadership, Higher and Adult Education)
Department of Sociology

Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-06:Spring 2017
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This study investigates the changing nature of work in Canada’s growing service sector, particularly as it relates to the role of customers. A multi-decade series of advancements associated with new technologies (e.g., production technologies, and faster communications), the penetration of neoliberal policies and international agreements (e.g., market liberalization, deregulation, and privatization), and the growth of knowledge-based industries, have impacted how individuals experience service work in Canada. What has been largely under-developed (until recently) in theorizing about these transformations is an investigation of the position of customers and their still-unfolding contributions to change for participants in the economy. In the sociology of work literature, questions have emerged as to the extent to which the rise of the customer—and customer power—has fundamentally altered and opened up the standard worker-manager employment relationship. This study further develops the “triangle of power” perspective (Lopez, 2010; McCammon and Griffin, 2000; Korczynski, 2009), highlighting the direct impact customers have on the labour process. It addresses how the traditional worker-manager dyad is giving way to a triangular relationship. In examining the relationship between worker, manager, and customer, this study contributes a nuanced understanding of how the emergence of a triangle of power in an upper-tier service organization has impacted workers—both in terms of their daily subjective experience of work, and also in relation to how they access organizational opportunities and rewards. Throughout, this dissertation emphasizes the challenges workers face as they navigate the service triangle in a world of work increasingly marked by competition, insecurity, and risk. My findings are based on a qualitative case study of “The Bank” (a pseudonym for one of Canada’s big five banks), where I conducted interviews with 55 participants and roughly 150 hours of participant observation. This study addresses the following research questions: 1) What factors influence whether managers or customers have more power over workers in specific service work contexts? 2) What are the processes of control that operate within the service triangle? 3) How do workers participate in emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983) within the service triangle? 4) How does participation in the triangle of power impact structural opportunities in the workplace? In terms of contributions, first, I develop the concept of the flexible triangle of power, highlighting the way that power flows in multiple directions between workers, managers, and customers. Here, advancing manager-dominant and customer-dominant models, I develop an analysis of how workers and customers participate in control mechanisms. With workers more often at the centre of control processes, workers and customers are each capable to exerting power over workers. As a second dimension of the flexible service triangle, this study examines the subjective aspects of control. Hochschild (1983) defines emotional labour as the “management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” (p. 7). An integral part of interactive service work, it involves workers performing emotions as part of their jobs. Yet, service work frequently requires individuals to participate in emotional labour that is highly controlled and structured. Therefore, the capacity for workers to develop authentic relationships with customers based on genuine interactions is also challenged. I found that workers performed emotions based on commercial (instrumental) and/or non-commercial (caring) motivations and, accordingly, formed temporary alliances with managers or customers. Here, I therefore pay special consideration to workers’ agency as they go about partaking in relationships within the flexible triangle. Third, this study suggests that the emergence of the triangle of power in upper-tier service work has increased the amount of insecurity and risk that workers experience. I demonstrate how the rise in individual competition between workers characteristic of service triangle work has contributed to the reproduction of social inequalities in the workplace, where opportunities for advancement and rewards are not distributed equally amongst workers.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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