How all organisations tend to the dysfunctional in their own way

By Martin Vogel

Taylorism: not without its ethical claims.
Taylorism: not without its ethical claims.

Book review: A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations by Chris Grey.

A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations by Chris Grey took me back to my roots in sociology. It was a welcome, if disconcerting, journey which made me question whether, even from my critical perspective, I’m too complicit with the orthodoxy of our age.

The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.

Grey is particularly scathing of how managerialism has attempted to co-opt organisational cultures to their agenda with talk of empowerment, alignment around values and consequent self-management. Since we’re not averse to a bit of alignment around values ourselves at Vogel Wakefield, this was the part of the book that challenged me most. Grey views management of culture as an attempt to secure compliance without even the knowledge or consent of employees and he castigates the vacuity of the values that are proclaimed. This a sound criticism of management’s attention to values such as it is practised in many organisations. But I don’t concede that it is necessarily oppressive for an organisation to try to define authentic values and to encourage its staff to put them into practice. An exercise of this kind worth its salt can actually be quite liberating for staff if it affords them autonomy to take the initiative in pursuit of customer service. Gary Hamel documents examples, such as in the Bank of New Zealand, which had the effect of subverting management thinking on customer service.

In any case, the nature of organisations as social – and therefore contested – institutions, means that management’s ability to secure psychological compliance is limited. As Grey himself notes, cultural management is doomed to failure since human agency means people will find ways to frustrate attempts to coral them into preconceived categories. He debunks the whole notion of organisational or management science, the idea that the management of humans is a purely technical matter. The thing about people is that the variables that influence their actions can never be pinned down in the same way that variables can be in scientific research. Within organisations, there are counter-cultures to the management culture, and employees also exist in social networks outside work which influence how they show up and behave inside the organisation. Every attempt by the management of an organisation to solve a problem creates unexpected effects which become the roots of the next problem to be solved. In this sense, failure is inherent to management because managers can never anticipate the consequences of their actions in the way that scientists can create predictable reactions in controlled laboratory situations.

Paradoxically, despite his concern about values in corporate cultures, Grey is also an advocate for a values revolution – of the kind that we would wholly endorse. This would differ from managerialist values in putting the broad interests of employees, communities and society at the heart of the management agenda. He is surprisingly generous about bureaucracy, which he describes as an attempt to achieve equity by applying principles of order and fairness to people’s work. By contrast, post-bureaucratic models, which conceive of organisations in terms of networks, are dismissed as half-baked. And he sees the financialisation of organisations as a betrayal of their social roots.

The central – and to me, heartening – argument of the book is Grey’s insistence that organisations cannot be understood as separate from the social, economic and political contexts in which they operate. Some would counter that to assert this is to to politicise organisations. But that counter-argument is itself a political agenda in favour of the status quo which is all the harder to see, even by those who advocate it, because it insinuates itself as the common sense of our age. Grey’s aim is to call into question this common sense construct. He wants to shift attention towards the “why” of organisations – in addition to the “how” where business orthodoxy likes to dwell. Efficiency is never an objective concept. The question always needs to be asked, “Efficient for whom?” Once this is allowed, the how of organisations, what they do in the name of efficiency, can be scrutinised. Organisations have social and economic purposes beyond the enrichment of their owners and senior managers, and they create externalities to which they should be held more accountable.

Grey’s is not an anti-capitalist account. Nor is it anti-management. He recognises that most managers occupy relatively low-status positions and are as subjugated by organisations as those they manage. In a society which is created through organisations, management will likely always have a place. The question is whether the ideology and power structures of managerialism can be challenged and a more equitable and just organising principle take its place:

“The choice is both political and personal. Politically, the world offered by conventional organizational theory is hideously distorted by manageralism in the sense that it treats managerial concerns and realities as being identical with what is true of organizations in general. It ignores all the consequences of organizations except for those that figure in a narrow calculus of a one-sided notion of efficiency. Personally, the world offered by conventional organization theory appeals only to those willing to distort themselves and others in line with stunted notions of people as controlled and controlling at the expense of the true range of their human potentials.”

It is notable that the book is written in plain, comprehensible English throughout. If there’s a shortcoming, it is that it is long on criticism without much delineation of what good organisational practice would look like. Fortunately, Frederic Laloux is on hand to showcase that. By defining the problem to which Laloux offers an answer, Chris Grey challenges fashionable nonsense of both managerialist and oppositional varieties.

Chris Grey

A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations by Chris Grey. Available from Amazon.

Hat tip: Jeremy Klein.