Management theory


My manager is a narrowly talented but largely clueless individual, like many of those elevated by tech companies. He has the added handicap of having gone to business school and having taken it seriously. A few months ago he sent a few of us a blog post about how to build a “dream team”. (We occasionally receive these types of articles, particularly after someone leaves the company. The hope, I suppose, is that we may imbibe its wisdom and thereby prevent similar departures in the future.)

The author of the essay works at a game studio and wants to make better games. She reads and quotes liberally from books in the “management theory” genre, including Ray Dalio’s Principles, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Nicholas Epley’s Mindwise, Shane Snow’s Dream Team, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, Geoff Smart’s Who, and so on. These books, and the blog post itself, are full of the usual claptrap: the elevation of making money to an almost spiritual endeavor (“The Why reveals your purpose, cause or belief. It’s the very reason why your organisation exists”); the conflation of the interests of employers with those of the employees (“It is essential that your team mission supports the company or founder’s mission.”); and the incessant injection of buzzwords and pop psychology terms, regardless of their applicability or tendency towards reductionism (“Six Thinking Hats”, “Big Five Personality Traits”, “Zone of Tension”).

The author claims that “if people [on a team] are too different, they will spend too much time clashing, becoming unproductive and ultimately dividing [sic].” She also presents a chart, copied above, that classifies various cultural groups along two different axes: confrontational vs confrontation-avoidant, and emotionally expressive vs stoic. If you take both the chart and the previously quoted statement seriously, you would be forced to conclude that building a team comprising people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, at least when those cultures or ethnicities are located on opposite ends of the chart, is an ultimately destructive endeavor. This is also the exact conclusion my manager arrived at. He explained that he and the CEO work so well together because he, being a Russian immigrant, is able to argue productively with an equally emotionally expressive and confrontational Israeli. Conversely, he explained, he constantly butts heads with the Japanese head of product because their cultures are polar opposites. Being a brown man, I fall somewhere in the middle, equidistant from both of them on this chart but not identical to either.

I’ve told this story to a few of my friends and they’ve concluded that my boss is a racist. Fair enough; I cannot dispute that claim. But my bigger takeaway is that he has the mind of a simpleton. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education, and is now called a “Master” of something, and the resulting product is this.

It is perhaps unnecessary to point out the factual problems with his argument. He and the CEO do not get along well together, nor are the CEO and the head of product constantly at loggerheads. Calling me “emotionally expressive,” as this “science” decrees, would be news to most of my friends. And both the head of product and I were born in this country, and are Americans in addition to our other labels. Of course, dissolving the distinction between first-generation immigrants, who grew up in a foreign land with its own mores, and second-generation immigrants, who did not, is at best deeply ignorant and at worst bigoted. But it is also a byproduct of reading literature about how to optimize your dealings with different cultures, and how to use their idiosyncrasies to your financial advantage: you tend to see these culturally essentialist patterns everywhere. If you have a dispute with someone at work, you might fall back on a crude intellectual framework instead of trying to treat your interlocutor like a normal person. It is deeply frustrating.

The fundamental problem, I feel, has to do with the idea of “management theory” in the first place. The author of the blog post explains, “Building teams is like cooking to me, my other passion. Both are a mix of art and science. They require patience, practice and the skill to navigate variables you don’t control (and there are many)! But when all those things come together with mastery, both provide great joy and a sense of fulfilment.”

But are those two things — cooking and management — comparable at all? Cooking ultimately reduces to the hard sciences of chemistry and physics: if we prescribe a temperature and time and are careful about the amounts of each ingredient, the final result ends up being produced (and is reproducible) in ways we can understand. Is building a team like that? If we combine a dash of Mexican (emotionally expressive but avoids confrontation) with a pinch of German (emotionally inexpressive but confrontational), is our recipe doomed to failure?

The phrase “management theory” is unintentionally revealing: it is not “management science”. Science requires correspondence with the truth, openness to revision of hypotheses in the face of conflicting evidence, willingness to subject predictions to real-world experiments. Here we have only the first step in the scientific method. We construct a model of human relations and human psychology. It is a slightly more sophisticated gloss on the “white people be like/black people be like” brand of humor. People are divided along a number of axes, or assigned to one of several clusters or categories. It is claimed that this act — the reduction of human beings, or groups of human beings, to a label, or an x- and y-coordinate, is helpful. All science involves reductionism, and, the leading management thinkers would have you believe, the situation is no different here. But — and this is the deeply disturbing part — theory is not just the first step but also the last one. If the dream team theory makes testable predictions, some of those might be: “people from different cultures are much more different than people from the same culture”, or “what your parents look like has a much greater bearing on your personality than the environment you grow up in”, or “emotional expressiveness and reluctance to engage in confrontation are intrinsic traits, unaffected by the circumstances of the workplace”. Are any of these claims true? And, perhaps more relevant, do the authors of these best-selling tomes even care? The “Culture Map” is not intended to be the subject of intellectual critique, let alone experimental validation. It is simply meant to be accepted and applied as a pragmatic framework for business people who never meet people of color other than to sell them stuff or order them around; for our capitalist ubermensches who can’t be bothered to read a book outside the context of work.

I’ve been revisiting a book I read a long time ago, back in college, called One Market Under God. The author, Thomas Frank, is better known for his more recent forays into politics, books like What’s the Matter with Kansas or Listen, Liberal. Frank’s grasp of politics is occasionally tenuous, but he excels at cultural criticism, which is where he got his start. One Market Under God tells the story of how capitalist forces constructed a narrative about the new economy of the 80s and 90s in which capitalism was conflated with democracy, and markets with populism. (It is unsurprisingly relevant to the economy of today as well.) As part of this effort, Frank reads dozens of management books, with heady titles like The Circle of Innovation, Liberation Management, Competing for the Future, The Fifth Discipline, and so on. He concludes, like I have, that “Anybody who has had any experience with the management theory industry can tell similar stories: of quotes and dates wildly misplaced, of an alarming and misinformed credulity about science, of anecdotes that prove nothing, of patently absurd syllogisms, of meaningless diagrams and homemade master narratives.” Frank spends an entire chapter on their musings, which I find occasionally hilarious but mostly sad. I struggle to come to terms with the idea that people are paid handsomely to do this, and that my superiors take them seriously: both that this industry exists and that it is enormously influential. I see its residue in my own workplace. One book develops the “key performance indicators” framework that is used to judge my performance; another book, as discussed, outlines the ethnic classifications that purportedly govern my personality; and, in fact, one of the suggestions for improvement raised during my last performance review was for me to read four more management theory books so that I can be a better — more effective, or at least more indoctrinated — employee. As Frank writes, we cannot simply dismiss these ideas as nonsense, even if they self-evidently are:

Clearly the “business revolution” is absurd in many ways. In what by rights should be the hardest-headed corner of American life, one encounters PhD-bearing experts on “aura”, full-blown astrologies of “leadership” and “creativity”, theories of art and learning so elementary they could have been lifted from the back of cereal boxes, and responsible adults devoted utterly to self-awareness tracts originally written for teenagers. Still, it will not do simply to dismiss the “business revolution” by laughing at its weirder manifestations…Yes, the business revolution is hilarious, but it is also deadly serious. Its members may spend their weekends howling at the moon, but on business days they are helping shape the world in which the rest of us live. In fact, with the decline of unions and the rollback of government, executives as a class now have more power than at any time since the 1920s. Their beliefs may be patently wrong; their world of ideas may be little more than superstition; the people who have so captured their attention may be charlatans preying on the desperate and the credulous; their institutions of higher learning may be processing plants for the faking of intellectual authority; but the authority they enjoy remains terrifyingly absolute nonetheless.

I don’t mean to suggest, like some have, that “things at Facebook would be different if Mark Zuckerberg had a liberal arts degree or took more humanities courses in college”. The problems with technology and corporate America are too fundamental to be ameliorated by an education in the classics. I will simply point out — and feel free to call me an elitist for doing so — that it is tough to reconcile the notion that American capitalism is the best way of running an economy, that it has something important to provide to our politics (for example, the first M.B.A. president), and that corporate pronouncements about topics like Asian hate and Black Lives Matter should be taken seriously, with the quality of intellectual life at these same institutions. Even more grating, to me at least, is that we, as workers in a corporation, are being lectured to, being denied raises by, and being asked to jump through hoops for — well, these people.


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