Sunday, 6 December 2009

Identity, Discourse and Organizations: Managism

In the last post I had promised to write a piece to make what I had written there a bit more concrete. Here I am! I want to discuss the implications of a certain type of discourse on managers’ identities. The managism discourse can be defined as:

An everyday discourse at the hearth of which is the belief that there is a distinctive managerial expertise based on a body of objective management knowledge which managers should apply to enable them rationally to design, maintain and drive organisational systems in the same way that expert engineers design, maintain and drive machines. (Watson, 2006)

Think about it: almost all management books, MBAs promotional material and similar stuff tend to advance a similar discourse. Let us analyze the possible implications. Watson calls managism an “operating faith”; he says that one function of it is to comfort people and basically give them the sense of security they need in order to cope with the complexities of the profession. Watson tells us how the rhetoric used by this promotional material works as many stories do: “it builds up anxieties in the reader and then implies that these anxieties will be overcome by the purchase of the product”. The product being the book or the MBA program.

Anyway there is also a potentially dangerous side in the managism Discourse: it creates the idea that managers are very rational, cool, calculating and visionary leaders (better if equipped with an MBA from a top Business School). Managers are presented as heroes. This Discourse can therefore raise the level of expectations to an unattainable level making it very difficult to keep up with them. “And, of course, it demands [managers] that they prove themselves all the time by achieving more demanding ‘results’ ” (Watson, 2006). The results of not being able to cope with these expectations can be tragic (e.g.: stress, depression, suicide).

Sveningsson and Larsson (2006) suggest and interesting and alternative way in which managers may end up coping with the Discourses (of leadership): fantasy. In their article, they describe the interesting case of a middle manager whose actual inability to lead in a transformational way is compensated with a sort of “identity immune system” which makes him think that he is actually a transformational leader, despite what others think and say. Reality is compensated with fantasy. In describing the manager way of seeing himself Sveningsson and Larsson wrote: “self-identity as a transformative and visionary leader has taken on the quality of fantasy, understood as an idea that is disconnected from current reality […]”.

We have therefore briefly discussed the implications of the managism Discourse on managers’ identities. Of course, one should also understand that, luckily, there is space left for choice. In fact, as discussed in the last post, there are many contradicting and competing discourses on which we can draw. People are still active agents and therefore are not completely constrained in their actions. As Watson (2006) writes “there is a mixture of choice and constraint”. Different people make sense differently of such texts, depending on their identities, past experiences, etc… Since there are many different Discourses, there is room for choice, but sometimes the space may not be enough we could say. In fact, I think that it may be very difficult to step away from certain Discourses when living in a certain world (e.g.: business world) where they are so dominating. The managism Discourse is probably the strongest one and, I have to admit, that I also tend to be trapped in it when I think of the implications of undertaking a career in business.