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Management theory

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Monday, Mar 26, 2007

It’s pretty easy to mock management theory for its proclivity for taking something that’s fairly commonsensical and presenting it as if it were a miraculous discovery. Amazing but true, but people dislike “change” and resist it! Believe it or not, workers feel “empowered” when their opinions are solicited. And they even like it when you explain to them why they have to do what you tell them in the way you’ve requested, as this WSJ piece by Phred Dvorak (not Fred) reports with wide-eyed surprise.


Management gurus agree that employees are most likely to get on board when they are involved in the decision-making process. In the many cases when that’s not possible, the next-best thing is to make employees feel as if they were involved, consultants say.


I don’t want to even think about what these consultants probably got paid. Dvorak does point out some of the niceties behind this insight, namely, it rarely suit management to have their authority undermined by opening up decision-making processes to criticism.  Management can often justify its existence by conserving and mystifying its knowledge of the systems it has put in place—this makes them indispensable and irreplaceable. In other words, it’s not usually an innocent mistake when you are kept ignorant by a boss, but on the plus side, if you deduce their reasons and start disseminating them, you may very well find yourself co-opted into a management position yourself.


Oddly enough, workers dislike being treated like interchangeable parts being plugged into a system that has no regard for their individuality—and the task of the manager is to overcome this fundamental obstacle. The obfuscating discourse of the pseudoscience of management furthers this end, helping to mask the humanity of those being managed and institutionalizing their needs into the production process—so many 15-minute breaks and ritualized pats on the back, as advised in whatever management guru’s (and they are invariably gurus) book is in vogue at the time. Management theory is useful in that it abstracts interpersonal behavior away from our ordinary human impulses, or tendency to drift toward the golden rule, the categorical imperative or whatever you want to call it, and allows managers to treat other people instrumentally—precisely how the managers themselves would not wanted to be treated. This is not to criticize managers—industrial-scale production and the division of labor forces the integration of a variety of individuals into a unified mechanism, one that requires the surrender of that individuality that elsewhere we are taught to prize and proudly flaunt. Managers have the unhappy task of enforcing that surrender of individuality, of breaking the sad news that you can’t simply do things your own way any more.


The consequences of this surrender of individuality is that workers stage small-scale clawbacks—decorating their cubicles with signs of the person they are outside of management’s clutches. I tend to resist this impulse personally and try to blend into anonymity; it just feels too desperate, like admitting that the battle for my soul has already been lost.


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