Managerial theory shifts over time. From a Sociological perspective, however, I would like to know, How does cultural difference produce managerial conflicts?
Here I start with the research assumption that managerial culture may combine with individual psychology to produce variations in managerial approaches, but that these variations tend to cluster within cultural communities. That is, there is more variation across cultures than amongst individuals within cultures.
As a sociologist, I would hypothesize that there are significant differences in managerial style across different groups, or cultures, of people, and that these would fall along cultural differences associated with gender and regional socialization.
And from a political sociology perspective, I would extend the research question: How might such cultural conflicts inform some interpretations of Anglo-American electoral politics, in a context in which managerialism is a central organizational form of life, particularly work?
Case Study: Regional and gendered managerial culture clashes in a Midwestern recreational vehicle manufacturing business
A Midwestern US recreational vehicle manufacturing business, we’ll call it Kisyinewmistatim, is an unusual business. It was founded by county business leaders in the late 1950s to provide economic stabilization in a low-amenity region of the US that serves as a source of agricultural land rents to finance, and consequently bleeds wealth and population. In the 21st century, Kisyinewmistatim has been charged by its Board of Directors to convert its mainframe to Microsoft Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) business systems management software, a massive undertaking.
Why convert to the ERP system? The current mainframe system is built around the considerable human intelligence of the workers who put the rec vehicles together, and the fixed capital that goes into production is managed around that intelligence core. This leaves too much fixed capital unemployed or even depreciating, where the current industrial norms are just-in-time factor supply. With the ERP systems coordination software, ideally, a) the intelligence required to run the system can be extracted like rents from the workers to the Microsoft software, and in so doing, b) the fixed capital, or non-human factors of production can be cost-optimized, and the variable capital, or the human intelligence of the workers, can be converted from a central pivot of the enterprise to a flexible marginal role, thereby allowing a shift to higher profits and greater returns to shareholders.
After a $30M initial failure, the company spends another $13M to try again.
To manage the second attempt at the conversion, a statuesque female project manager is brought in from the outside, and from a more-affluent, more liberal, more urban nearby state. She manages the integration for over a year. Along the way in this difficult conversion, as you might imagine, she comes to clash with two executive directors at Kisyinewmistatim.
The first clash is with the executive director of shop floor rec vehicle assembly. He is a man from a slaver state, Arkansas. He flat refuses to communicate or cooperate with the project manager, simply screaming at and berating her and talking her down to others. The male manager from the slaver region explicitly accuses the conversion project manager of being insufficiently “hard,” that is, insufficiently male and authoritarian to cooperate with.
The second is the project manager’s boss, a male IT executive with an explosive temper. He is in a cultural clash with the shop floor exec director. The two execs spend a lot of time performatively, publicly declaring their compatibility; but they spend even more time clashing and not cooperating in meetings. Neither the shop floor exec or her IT boss will listen to the Project Manager. While their regional cultures of management differ, they share the managerial conviction that such a conversion project requires simple top-down fiat command, rather than coordination and listening and responding to feedback and information from lower-rank workers.
How is the Project Manager to survive this situation? Working with people who will cooperate her, she manages the conversion of almost all the systems to the new Microsoft software system. There is one particularly-tricky switch-over that will require a few extra months to work out. But her boss refuses. He screams at her, gives her a raise, and demotes her. The last conversion piece will still require a few extra months to work out, as it is a structural issue.
The Project Manager assesses that for the new Microsoft system to work will still require shop floor workers who understand how to build recreational vehicles to use their knowledge to cobble gaps in the system together. As other studies have shown, where the product must function in the physical world, such as with automobiles, marketing cannot hide that managerial-surveillance software systems cannot replace the role of worker intelligence in making (cf Scarry 1985). Only where the product has non-physical qualities, such as in education, can marketing suffice to hide the limits of capitalist machines’ capacity to contribute to making.
The managerial culture question before us is: What do the silent expectations inscribed by culture mean for the interpretation of competent management, as well as individuals’ propensity to communicate and cooperate?
In the Kisyinewmistatim example above, we can see that both gender and regional origin supplied the content of the executive management actors’ understanding of competent management, as well as their propensity to communicate and cooperate. Their masculine and inegalitarian cultural constructions of managerialism include:
1) The manager should be male.
2) The manager should declare orders, using a concussive male voice.
3) Where the orders cannot be satisfied by lower-ranking workers, those workers are to be constructed as embodiments of failure. The workers bear non-ideal conditions.
4) The manager does not listen to lower-ranking workers about conditions impacting work goals.
5) Top managers publicly affirm each other.
Yet, we know from the voluminous managerial literature, these are not the central decisions and skills that managers should be exercising to ensure organization goals are achieved. Rather, TBC…
Political Sociology extension:
How might such cultural conflicts inform some interpretations of Anglo-American electoral politics, in a context in which managerialism is a central organizational form of life, particularly work?
Now let’s consider managerialism as a habitus that proliferates in regions that manage global production and reproduction systems. For people for whom managerialism is a normal mode of coordination, what constitutes leadership? My hypothesis is that leadership is conceived in managerial terms.
Therefore, in an election in a managerialist economy (such as a financialized economy), political leaders may be imagined and evaluated by the criteria associated with different managerial cultures.
Thus, we may understand interpretrations of Clinton/Biden/Democrat Party v. Trump/Republican Party leadership aptitude and performance, for example, as arguments for and against contrasting managerial cultures.
Yet is it appropriate to reduce capitalist countries’ political executive to a managerial role? How valid is the construction of political executives as managers, and governance as managerial style or culture?
For consideration on intersections between the managerial interpretation of politics and the militarized interpretation of politics: Berlet, C. & Lyons, M.N. 1998. “Repression and ideology: Reflections on the legacy of discredited centrist/extremist theory.”