The Hubris of Management

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Title: The Hubris of Management
Year: 1996
Authors: Gabriel, Y.

Since its earliest beginning, management theory has been preoccupied with control, a concept lying at the core of managerial discourses of organizations. It has featured prominently in managerial literature since Taylor and Fayol and has been a central pillar of organizational theory since Max Weber's work on bureaucracy. Standing as the guarantor for order, predictability and reliability, control has become virtually co-extensive with what most managers understand by 'organization'.

Control has also been the core concept for much critical thinking about management, notably that emanating from the labour process tradition and from the critique of the corporate culture literature (See, for example, Knights and Willmott, 1990, Jermier, Knights and Nord, 1994, Turner, 1986, Rosen and Astley, 1986, Sievers, 1986, Smircich, 1983, Willmott, 1993). These traditions have approached control not as an organizational desideratum but rather as the cause of oppression and alienation or as the occasion for subterfuge and deception. Yet, like managerial discourses they place control at the core of management.

The word 'management' with its connotations of control is no longer restricted to a technical or indeed political function within organizations. It is currently used to encompass areas as diverse and grandiose as the management of the environment, the management of the economy,the management of the African elephant, the management of emotion, or still more ambitiously the management of the planet. It seems that nothing lies beyond the embrace of management — "Managing x" is the title of countless books, where x is virtually anything. For practicing managers, the issue has become one of technique and search for efficiency — how best to control people, information and other resources in the light of continuous change and uncertainty. To this end virtually any concept or technique may be marshalled, including concepts such as autonomy and empowerment, which are often assimilated into a rhetoric in which self-policing seeks to camouflage management control.

1. "I would say that they can get on with the job but they know damn well everything is being monitored", claims an unusually candid executive quoted by Mangham and Pye (1991:42).


Lately, managerial discourses of control have been joined by followers of Michel Foucault, who have built on his insights on the clinic, the asylum and the prison. (Foucault, 1965, 1971, 1977) The emphasis here shifts from the agents and techniques of control to the deeper mechanisms and modalities of control, at once more subtle and more pervasive than the ones we encounter in orthodox management literature (Burrell, 1988, Linstead and Grafton-Small, 1988, Knights, 1990, 1992, Knights and Vurdubakis, 1994, Townley, 1993). Panoptic techniques, ranging from spatial design and electronic surveillance to employee appraisal, ensure minuscule control of individual behaviour, creating subjects, disciplined and self-disciplined in body and soul. The idea of the subject itself, as a sovereign or independent agency, is critically dissolved by this discourse, ending up as the effect of discursive and non-discursive practices, ranging from psychotherapy (Rose, 1989) to career planning, the writing of CVs or submission to staff appraisal (Grey, 1994, Miller and Morgan, 1993, Austrin 1994). Organizational practices, like observing, classifying, labelling, assessing, promoting and dismissing do not merely control 'pre-given' subjects but actually define them; this is how contemporary subjects, whether as managers or as managed are constituted, their cognitive and emotional states controlled every bit as closely as their physical movements.

None of these arguments deny that individual men and women energetically pursue their individual projects of self or identity at work, at home, in shops or in streets. But individual men and women delude themselves, or more precisely they police and manage themselves through this delusion of being sovereign subjects. Even when they believe that they are free to realize or discover themselves, to experiment with different identities or to relax and enjoy themselves as they please, they in fact are being managed and policed. The docile queues in Disneyland are being managed and policed every bit as intensely as the new accounting trainees competing for the favours of their seniors. More often than not, management and policing becomes self-management and self-policing. "The project of self-management links home and work, leisure, dreams and day-dreams. Perhaps most significantly, it links past, present and future through the vector of the self" argues an eloquent exponent of this view. (Grey 1994:481)

Indeed consumption is a range of practices, managed and controlled as closely as work practices. In spite of ritual affirmations of the consumer's sovereignty, vast amounts of resources are expended on monitoring, analysing, observing and influencing consumers, seeking to anticipate every market fluctuation. Colossal surveys currently claim to have drawn street by street purchasing profiles for the entire population of the United Kingdom. (Gabriel and Lang 1995, Lansley, 1994) Every credit card transaction is closely scrutinized, every movement in a shopping mall monitored by electronic cameras. Even bigger resources are devoted to advertising which saturates the world of information and the media and exercises asphyxiating control over meanings. Baudrillard, in his early writings, argued that the meanings of objects are fixed by an omnipotent code, which ultimately controls and defines individuals:

"Let us not be fooled: objects are categories of objects which quite tyrannically induce categories of persons. They undertake the policing of social meanings, and the significations they engender are controlled." (1968/1988:16-7)

In this paper, I wish to challenge the over-managed and over-controlled images of individuals, organizations and societies generated by such discourses. I wish to argue that social reality entails a vital unpredictability which seriously undermines the possibility of planning and control. In particular, I wish to challenge the hubris of management, the presumptuous belief that everything is, can be and must be predicted, planned for and controlled. Instead, I wish to emphasize that managers are not masters of their own fate, let alone of their organizations or their customers to anything like the extent commonly imagined. Control has become an item of faith.

Keywords: management theory, managerial discourses, organizations
Language: English

Date: 6/15/1996
Location: New York, NY
Name of Event/Conference: 13th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

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