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Gianpiero Petriglieri: Are Our Management Theories Outdated?

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Marcelo Santos/Getty Images “Where are the new management theories?” an acute observer of management trends asked me at a gathering of executives, academics, and journalists focused on the future of work. It was a few months ago, and no one expected the future to arrive as quickly as it has, or in the way that it has. I had heard that question before — it’s a staple of those gatherings — but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since work as we knew it has ground to a halt. Theories bind analysis and action and, especially in times of change, when the future becomes unpredictable and anxiety is running high, managers need theories to provide clarity and reassurance. Scientific management. Human relations. Competitive advantage. Shareholder value maximization. Disruptive

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Gianpiero Petriglieri: Are Our Management Theories Outdated?
Marcelo Santos/Getty Images

“Where are the new management theories?” an acute observer of management trends asked me at a gathering of executives, academics, and journalists focused on the future of work. It was a few months ago, and no one expected the future to arrive as quickly as it has, or in the way that it has. I had heard that question before — it’s a staple of those gatherings — but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since work as we knew it has ground to a halt. Theories bind analysis and action and, especially in times of change, when the future becomes unpredictable and anxiety is running high, managers need theories to provide clarity and reassurance.

Scientific management. Human relations. Competitive advantage. Shareholder value maximization. Disruptive innovation. These are only a few of the theories that have moved management over the past century, offering it a rationale, a script, and at times a justification for action. They have shaped management, too, conveying an image of who managers must be.

Take scientific management — best known as Taylorism — arguably the most enduring management theory of them all. It suggests that a manager’s job is to increase efficiency in a production system. The manager then, rendered in the image of Dr. Taylor, must be a detached engineer who sifts through data to counter the most common source of error: people.

I should know about new theories since I am, after all, a management professor. But I’ve been drawing a blank. To be sure, there was no lack of new management hacks even before the upheaval of the past few months. Management stories abound, covering the whole range from epic to comedic to outright tragic tales. Executives have visions, pledge their allegiance to evidence, and even pen manifestos. But new theories? They seem to be nowhere in sight. Even management academics are distraught, doubting that old management theories still apply in organizations ruled by algorithms, and wondering whether anyone is up to developing new ones.

But this lack of new theories is a concern not just for me, my conference friend, many a manager, and the authors I just cited. It affects you, too. Regardless of your age, and whether you are a manager or not, you are caught with us in a mid-life crisis of management. The signs of that crisis transpire in many an everyday experience. Perhaps you feel uneasy and restless, sensing that we will not be going back to “normal” in the workplace, if we even still have one. Or you feel stuck and swing between frustration and despair, wondering who is in charge and what is yet to come. You feel anger at the system, not to mention mistrust; you feel loneliness and dearth of meaning. Those aren’t just signs of grief at the way life has forced us to change in the past few months and weeks — our unease and despair have been brewing since long before that.

The more we reach for new theories, however, the more uneasy and stuck we become. That’s because the issue that sparks mid-life crises is unlike most of the challenges that management is fit to analyze and solve. It is an existential one.

And yet it must be faced. Our lives depend on it.

It is the issue of death — and the question of what to do with whatever freedom, time, and energy we have left.

You read that right. I am arguing that the unease that many have felt at work over the past months and years and feel most acutely now, in the face of a global health and social crisis, is not due to managers’ inability to prepare for the future. It is due to management’s unwillingness to contemplate a shortage of its own future that is only becoming more obvious and urgent. A shortage of future that concerns management as an idea and a practice, not just the fate of individual managers. Such denial, still on display in many organizations even today, is dangerous as well as unfortunate.

Mid-life crises are often unpleasant but productive affairs. Death, when we can confront it, forces us to consider not just how we live, but also why we exist. It mobilizes our intellect and imagination towards better ways and bigger whys. While it begins as the absence of meaning and hope, a mid-life crisis can be a source of both. It can transform us — changing us in pervasive and permanent ways. It can free us up — helping us defy dated obligations. And it can humanize us — deepening connections with others and ourselves. That humanization is much needed, as many have been pointing out, but it must go much further than the usual rhetoric of purposeful leadership, an airbrushing of humanism to make management nicer. It must become its core.

There is much to gain, if we can work through the crisis. But first let us consider where it comes from.

* * *

A mid-life crisis needs not be sparked by the realization of our actual, physical death. It can be sparked by awareness that the world as we knew it, or a worldview we held dear, is failing. (Though, indeed, a failing worldview often begets physical death, since fraying social bodies amplify the frailty of the individual ones that make them up.) Mid-life crises erupt at existential turning points, between a state that is no longer viable and one that is not yet conceivable.

Seen that way management has been having a mid-life crisis for a while. Because capitalism — the worldview that most management theories and tools have long been drafted to sustain and advance — is at an existential juncture. We are no longer just asking how to make it work. Many now wonder why (and for whom) it exists. Some are even asking if it is viable any more.

“Capitalism as we know it is dead,” Marc Benioff declared, three weeks into the 2020s. Speaking from the main stage to a packed auditorium at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Salesforce CEO made an unlikely eulogist. Benioff was inviting his peers to put to rest the ultra-capitalism concerned only with itself, obsessed with growth and profits and blind, if not outright hostile, to its environmental and social context. The strand of capitalism on display daily in macro trends like the emergence of “winners take all” societies, and micro moves like a concern for ailing markets during a pandemic.

We might debate whether ultra-capitalism is dead. But as the planet burns, inequality rises, people suffer, and geopolitics become ever more tense, there are few doubts that it is deadly.

Much of the harm ultra-capitalism does occurs through its management, more precisely, through the unquestioned practice of a dehumanized view of how management works and should work. It’s an instrumental view that casts it as a technology of sorts, a means to an end, a tool to maximize efficiency, alignment, and performance—even when seemingly acting with concern and care for people. It neglects anything that does not affect performance, and its influence reaches so deep we often use it to manage even our own selves, say, every time we tell ourselves that we ought to sleep, exercise, or read a novel so we can be more productive at work, rather than because our lives are healthier and richer and freer for it.

Consider, for example, most management research or popular management writing. It is predicated on a portrait of management, when done well, as the way to predict and solve practical problems. And it is dedicated to offering prescriptions for managers to address those problems. How do I make decisions? How can I be heard? How can I stay productive? How do I help my team succeed?

In many circumstances, the theories and tools that help answer instrumental questions suffice. But they are of little help when existential questions surface, such as, How long will we be around? Do we matter? Are we in charge? Those are mid-life questions, for individuals. And they are the very questions we ask ever more often of management at this existential juncture.

* * *

Those questions are growing louder, and those who were meant to bury ultra-capitalism, if anything, are rushing to its deathbed to resuscitate it, arguing that their previous success makes them best equipped to solve social ills, or selling out our health and privacy for profit.

Trying to change the world without wanting to change our world is a classic sign of mid-life and a common defense when our worldviews collapse. Only offering to lend one’s hand and means can be a way to assure that one will remain valuable and central even in a new world. (It’s also a way to pursue the most ultra-capitalist of aspirations—a revolution without revolutionaries).

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same,” utters the Prince of Salina facing his loss of standing in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece “The Leopard.” I have heard the quote used as a positive example of managerial pragmatism, but in the novel, the fictional Prince urging his family to forge bonds with the armies of a rival monarch and the family of a business leader is the epitome of shapeshifting power. He is interested only in remaining in place and postponing collapse until after he is gone. His words, I am afraid, would not be out of place in the mouth of those who seek new ideas and tools only to remain in charge.

Ultimately, however, this approach is not enough. If we want to change the world, we need to change our world first. That means that those who aspire to give birth to a new brand of capitalism must kill the old brand of management first.

When I say that we must kill management, I do not mean terminating managers, the people.

Replacing them with algorithms, for example, risks making management more instrumental than it already is. The AI-run workplace achieves degrees of control that surpass Frederick Taylor’s wildest dreams. Replacing old managers with new managers will not do either. It would be useless, if new ones embody the same principles with a different style.

Instead, When I say we need to kill management, I mean putting to rest the way we conceive and portray and practice management. We — you and me, people who attend gatherings and read magazine features on the future of work, and everyone else who brings management to life in words, in writing, or in their daily work — need to change our conception of management, of its function in any enterprise.

What do we replace it with?

We need a truly human management, one that makes room for our bodies and spirits alongside our intellect and skills. That cares for what work does and feels and means to us, not just for what we can do at work and how. A management that abjures the relentless pursuit of efficiency and alignment — and celebrates, or even just acknowledges the inconsistencies that make us human. A management that pursues existential growth as passionately as it pursues instrumental growth — that is, one that pursues the expansion of our consciousness alongside that of our powers. One where we can be fully human, with all our contradictions, in pluralistic institutions.

A human management will demand that we incorporate a concern for the freedom and well-being of those we manage as much as for their productivity; that we consider the environmental as well as the economic consequences of strategic choices; that we stop pleading powerlessness in the face of the tyranny of technology and take responsibility to reject technologies that enable tyranny. That we hear and amplify a broader set of voices, not only those that fit a narrow view of management and of its concerns, but also those that defy it, and in so doing, enliven it.

That kind of management might advance a capitalism based on curiosity and compassion, therefore one that is much better at innovation and inclusion than its current form.

One can see glimpses of such a human view of management already. You can see them in the CEOs who talk about caring about purpose as much as about profit. You can see them in people’s longing for meaning and community at work. But for those claims not to ring hollow and those longings not to go unmet, management as we know it, really, it has to die. There is no other way. Because, in truth, it does not have a problem. It is the problem.

***

The challenge facing management is not the lack of new theories; it is the strength of the old ones. It is impossible to build the future using the blueprints of the past. It is like going to a plastic surgeon to restore our looks when we should see a psychoanalyst to free our mind instead.

That is what management could use more of these days, I have argued in a recent paper on which this essay is based. More psychoanalysis, that is. I kid you not. Especially the branch of psychoanalysis concerned with systems of organization and people’s experience in organizations. A line of work that challenges organizations’ dysfunctional cultures and people’s fascination with neurotic leaders, one that aims to free us up from constraints of the past.

You could call psychoanalysis a theory, or a tool. I would not disagree. (There’s my management theory for our times). But I am using it here as shorthand for a subversive conversation. A relationship that helps us examine why we fear what we want and what our theories cost us when they become beliefs. That is, when solutions to old problems become reasons for our stuckness.

Seen through this lens, the essence of a mid-life crisis is confinement. Theories that we learned early on, and kept us going, have come to keep us captive.

For individuals, those are usually personal theories about how to get on. You must always work hard. (What for?) You can rest after the next promotion. (Really?) Prove that you can make it alone. (But why?) Always work to fit in. (At what cost?) For management, these are theories we picked up at school, from books, and from role models at work. Popular theories like the ones I mentioned earlier, or more local ones in our organizations. Managers, say, must put shareholders first, or keep people in line. Those theories might have kept us safe and made us successful, at one point. They worked for us and so we worked for them. Until their magic stopped, usually because we could not change, were confronted with death, or both.

Those theories fail us then because they show us how to keep going without telling us why. When change is needed or death is in the horizon, that will neither soothe us nor suffice us. The question we need to answer is no longer, “what works best?”; it is “what is worth living for?”

Psychoanalysis asks that question and in so doing frees us when the confinement becomes too much. “People come for psychoanalysis—or choose someone to have a conversation with—when they find that they can no longer keep a secret,” writes renowned British analyst Adam Phillips. “What was once private has become, in spite of oneself, unbearable.”

A mid-life crisis is a euphemism for the realization that the instrumental answers that theories generate from data do not fit existential questions. Theories are of limited use without a purpose. They are, eventually, unbearable. So is the idea of management we have clung to for a century.

This is why existential threats, when we confront them, can end up freeing us up. They broaden our horizon, by reminding us that we need more than theories and that we are more than tools.

With insight and support, we often emerge from a mid-life crisis with more spacious view of who we are, more forgiving, more generous, more resolute and tolerant at once, more likely to balance our concern for the mechanics and morals of our actions. If it can face its own mid-life crisis, then, management might be on the brink of a real transformation. It might even use the current health and social crises as opportunities to demonstrate, not just tout, its commitment to humanity.

For that, however, we do not need new theories of management. We need a broader purpose for it. And we need that purpose to emerge not in bold pronouncements but in ongoing conversations, with ourselves and others, that challenge instrumental theories. Those conversations are far more useful at existential junctures like this. They are a far better means to free us up and join us in bringing about a human turn in management—and ultimately in our relationships with each other, with technology, and with the planet in the workplace.

Those who are still skeptical of pronunciations such as “capitalism as we know it is dead,” and mistrust the commitment to transformation of those who have benefited from ultra-capitalism, base their critique on a sound principle. We usually like to change the world if we can, but not to the extent that it puts our identities are at stake. Unless we are in a mid-life crisis, that is. Then, an existential view suggests, people are often capable of becoming a threat to their old world-views, of killing an old self that gets in the way of the future.

If efficiency is the aim of instrumentalism, freedom is the aim of existentialism. Deepening our humanity, in business, politics, and every other field, requires an equal devotion to both. The day that freedom is as central as efficiency to its practice, we might declare management dead and welcome it to a new life.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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