Managing in the Corporate Interest
By resisting the directive to manage out new categories of poor performers, middle managers rejected the means top management identified as best serving the corporate interest. The next three chapters describe that resistance and analyze why middle managers refused to act as agents of restructuring along the lines mandated by strategic management.
Sociologists and organizational researchers have typically studied management action from one of two reigning orthodoxies. The "postclass" model of employment conditions and relations of authority presumes harmonious intramanagement relations (a result of the coordination of management and professional interests with the objectives of the firm), autonomous work conditions, and employment conditions untouched by unemployment or decline (Bell 1973). An implicit model of corporate organization, based on growth, decentralization, and certainty of environment (Chandler 1962), bolsters such presumptions. In this framework, different groups in industrial society transcend their conflicting class relations.
The postclass view of American society is closely related to a corresponding sociological tradition of management studies: research on organizational behavior. In this perspective, which generally ignores historical and politico-economic contexts, middle managers act along only one dimension of rationality. In a technocratic, rational work setting, middle managers align their behavior with top management's goals and with larger profitability objectives; their micro-level actions in the workplace are in harmony with those macro-level purposes.
Top management charges middle managers with a dramatic mission, in this view; through their combined efforts managers must virtually ensure the life and success of the firm. March and Simon (1958), for example, argue that responsibility for motivating human beings to direct their efforts toward organizational objectives and for anticipating and managing resistance to change rests in the hands of managers who must be sensitive to the many complex organizational and human factors that emerge from employees below them and from top management above them. In the name of efficiency, managers should halt "irrational" action in the organization and replace it with formally rational actions (Fischer and Sirianni 1984, p. 9); they should automatically maneuver toward corporate objectives. Likewise, McGregor (1960) argues that "it is natural to expect management to be committed to the economic objectives of the industrial organization" (p. 13).
By the same token, when middle managers act irrationally themselves-that is, when they do not cooperate in maximizing top management's corporate agenda-the organizational behavior perspective assumes that managers are blocked or subverted from realizing their rational, management-identified interests. Thus top managers and consultants must look for organizational solutions that will unblock logical courses of managerial action.
Organizational theorists looking at contemporary patterns of organizational decline have recently described how the current politico-economic context shapes organizational behavior. In contrast to the earlier, ahistorical studies, the recent research examines cutbacks made necessary by economic decline and stagnation (Whetton 1980), increased competition and resulting uncertainty in formerly predictable environments (Krantz 1988), and the problems of managing mature industries in crisis (Harrigan 1988). The leaders of American organizations and corporations, these researchers argue, now face the ineluctable fact that they must transform their enterprises in order to adapt to a new environment. Specifically, they must regain control over costs, decision-making processes, and cultures to prepare their firms for a new competitive era.
Furthermore, the organizational-decline literature argues that one of the biggest obstacles to corporate adaptation is inside the firm: the ranks of managers who routinely respond to demands for a cost-effective, competitive environment with dysfunctional behavior. Whether they are seen as reacting to decline with a "threat-rigidity response" (Staw, Sandelands, and Dutton 1988), minimal innovativeness and commitment to the firm (Cameron and Zammuto 1988) or as "revert[ing] to less mature forms of behavior that function as more primitive defenses against anxiety" (Krantz 1988, p. 267; emphasis added), middle managers in declining American organizations are depicted as massively obstructing the national attempt to regain corporate competitiveness. These managers appear to have willfully withdrawn their commitments; because they are threatened, demoralized, and depressed, they refuse to harness their expertise to the service of change and experimentation.
The current organizational paradigm, however, has an ahistoricism all its own. Although it acknowledges the importance of the changed environment, this perspective does not question top managers' claims that American corporations have been buffeted by environmental conditions beyond top managements' control; it seldom looks at how decline and restructuring may be caused by corporate policies themselves. Consequently, those who study organizational decline all too readily concur with the draconian measures corporate leaders claim must be implemented to accomplish corporate retrenchment (downsizing, layoffs, centralization, plant closures, and whittling wage packages). Moreover, these researchers conflate means and ends by suggesting that if mid-level managers fail to comply with the techniques for restructuring corporations, they must also reject the objectives of restructuring; therefore, they must be irrational about the long-term goals and viability of the organization. Observers of organizational change fail to consider whether the means for carrying out new agendas are truly rational in the light of the organizational exigencies middle managers face.
In sum, the organizational behavior perspective tends to view conflict as personal, psychological disturbances within
firms, rather than evidence of possible conflict over the boundaries of managerial autonomy or the reformulation of corporate objectives in the context of capital accumulation processes. Resistance and conflict are conceptualized as evidence of irrationality, bounded rationality, narrow self-interest, and, in some cases, products of human nature. Rarely are middle managers considered to hold interests that are consciously, rather than unintentionally, opposed to the objectives of capitalists and top management.
The second reigning orthodoxy, the "class" perspective, ironically shares the assumptions of the postclass model about the rationality of managerial action and interests. I say "ironically" because, although the question of managerial interests is analytically integral to their work, class theorists either insufficiently explain the origins and dimensions of those interests or describe them a priori (Wood 1982).
Studies of the labor process best represent the class perspective on management and control. The "coercion-and-control" model, sparked by Braverman's (1974) work, does not question but rather assumes that middle managers' interests are an extension of top management's. Middle managers rationalize and degrade the labor process of their workers without question; their objectives are thoroughly aligned with profitability objectives formulated by top management. Although Braverman suggests that managers' work, like everyone's work under monopoly capitalism, will become proletarianized in the long run, these diametrically opposed characterizations of middle management are ultimately dead ends for anyone wishing to understand the actions and interests of middle managers: managers either are capitalist agents completely in control or are hurtled into the degraded ranks of laborers, workers who are completely out of control.
The "class-struggle" model, exemplified in the work of Edwards (1979), posits managers' interests and actions in a similarly a priori fashion. Although Edwards sees class antagonism between workers and managers as an ever-present dynamic in the capitalist workplace, he assumes a fit between the structures of control designed by top management and middle managers' consent to those structures. Thus the class-struggle model offers only partial explanations for distinctions among managers and for the way in which corporate strategies for controlling workers transform managerial work as well.
The coercion-and-control and the class-struggle frameworks base their model of managerial action on managers as rational representatives of capitalists and top managers. They tend to focus almost exclusively on the ways that supervisorial and managerial personnel are agents of capital in deskilling and degrading workers. Moreover, these models tend to lump all managers into one interest group and to make assertions about management ideology without investigating how that ideology emerges from the real conditions of managerial work and social relations (Nichols 1980).
In these perspectives, middle managers push strategic management's demands through without question; there is little understanding of the divergences between middle and strategic managers over strategies for accumulation and the micro-level measures for achieving them. Thus both the organizational perspective and some working in the labor process perspective emphasize one basis for rational management action: the broad profit maximizing objectives of the firm, formulated by top management, and shared and acted on by middle managers.
The "consent-and-resistance" framework, a third model, which examines how interests are shaped by particular organizational work contexts (Burawoy 1979), goes beyond these limitations. Rather than assume that there is anything preordained about workers' or managers' interests, this model emphasizes the conditions under which workers have given and withheld their consent to management objectives in the labor process under monopoly capitalism (Burawoy 1979). The study presented here begins with this emphasis and focuses on the other side of the labor relationship: the conditions under which particular managerial interests are constructed and how managers become engaged in the manufacture of consent in the workplace.
What was the managing out process and how was it related to corporate restructuring processes? Managing out was a new and distinctive practice that defined a hitherto undistinguished category of employees as poor performers. Strategic management demanded that lower-level managers, across the firm, move actively to get rid of "nonproductive" employees. Beyond those who were normally recalcitrant, uncooperative, or slow, the newly constructed definition of an unproductive employee included employees who were "deadwood" and "rigid bureaucrats with a fear of ambiguity." Managers were to "manage" and "root out" mediocrity, to "be more objective in assessing real performance," and to "make more decisions at lower levels" about firing people.
Using ranking procedures to place employees on a normal curve, managers could identify poor performers. Those who fell at the bottom of the ranked curve would be managed out as poor performers. Thus the new category of poor performer was a weapon in the war to get middle managers to use coercive management practices and to absorb responsibility for cutting the number of bank employees.
In addition, the framework of "coercive autonomy" encouraged managers to use their discretion, or managerial judgment, to subject employees to new norms intended to increase productivity. In the chapters that follow I demonstrate that in fact managers extensively used the discretion that strategic management encouraged-but not in the service of the more insidious aspects of corporate restructuring. Rather, striving to maintain and raise productivity levels to meet the larger objectives of corporate profitability, they used their discretion to fend off both the coercive application of norms and an arbitrary or purely statistical orientation toward managing out. They reinterpreted the concept of managerial discretion, focusing on organizing consent and stability and simultaneously working to increase performance levels in a context of centralization, contraction, and uncertainty.
But do middle managers really respond in such a unitary fashion? Can we substantiate claims for such undifferentiated patterns of managerial action? To answer that question we must consider the hypothesis that the uneven patterns of management restructuring shaped different organizational capacities for maneuvering against strategic management's agenda. Comparing middle managers in three production contexts-the bank branches, the systems (research and development) division, and the credit card center-shows how the structural reorganization of the firm caused different degrees of change in managerial discretion and subsequently established the limits for different courses of action. These three cases do not constitute an exhaustive list of examples of management restructuring in American Security Bank. Rather, they represent three points on a continuum, from a work site in which an extensive degree of authority and discretion was expropriated from middle managers to a work site in which managers were given greater authority to act as agents for the restructuring agenda. Specifically, I examine different ways that autonomous discretion was expropriated from middle managers and how these distinct structural conditions shaped managers' ability to act on and interpret strategic management policies.
Restructuring Branch Management
Loretta Swan had just received a monthly report on her branch the day before our interview. Written by her area manager, this report contained pages of statistical summaries on the "output" of her branch: checking and savings account levels, number of loan referrals, sales figures on the increasing array of financial products, and number of customer conversions to the electronic teller system and to the "checkless" checking account. Many of these transactions were aggregated by the identification number of individual tellers or customer service representatives. The report also provided detailed information on staffing and personnel, such as the number of full-and part-time positions, the number of overtime hours, and the ratios of profits to salary expenses.
The synopsis, as Loretta called it, concluded that her branch was overstaffed by one and one-half positions. In the year preceding our interview she had acted on the directive of similar reports and had pared the number of full-time merchant and customer tellers and customer service positions to fifteen from twenty-one by not replacing employees who quit or who moved on in the corporation, a process she called "managing down through attrition." One of Loretta's first comments captured the meaning of the area management report to her. The computer printout, she said, gave "unequivocal" evidence that at that point she had to cut even more, but "everyone here already feels overworked to death." That discouragement and the event to which it referred aptly summarized both the pressures on the branch manager of American Security Bank and the hierarchical relationship between the branch and the area management group (AMG).
The AMG was the source of much that was closing in on the branch and contributing to a fundamental speedup of branch operations. In many ways, the AMG was replacing the branch, or middle management, position. It was a repository of the management function, consolidating into one structure a centralized mechanism for indirectly managing many smaller bank units. The consolidation of management into the AMG signaled the end to both the "brick and mortar" strategy of branch growth and the decentralized structure on which that strategy was based.
The AMG's presence was vividly embodied in the regular summaries of branch activities that provided detailed, hard evidence of deficiencies in productivity and overstaffing at Loretta's branch. Loretta's own information-management tasks, in part, enabled the AMG to amass those statistics. She compiled information, for example, on employees' work hours, hours employees spent in specialized training classes, and numbers of customers that tellers "converted" to products that were more profitable to the bank. But her role in gathering and summarizing information was bypassed, to some degree, by functional and technological reorganization. When tellers made loan referrals-when they arranged for a customer to obtain and submit a loan application-their names and branch were included on a referral sheet that was forwarded to and tabulated at the loan center and sent to the appropriate AMG. Information summarizing tellers' attitudes and aptitudes was gathered and quantified by anonymous shoppers, employees of the bank who routinely "shopped" at various branches and evaluated tellers' personalities (Does he or she smile? Are they pleasant?) and sales capacities (What, if any, products or services did this teller attempt to sell? Did tellers seem to have adequate knowledge of the product? Were they able to answer questions readily?). The results of shopper surveys as well were forwarded to AMGs.
Even when Loretta did tabulate statistical information, the role she once played in evaluating and acting on that information had changed. Whereas formerly Loretta would have tracked branch information and used it to develop an integrated picture of branch performance, the job of tracking various kinds of information had been transferred into specialized sections in the AMG. In the branch, for example, they recorded all cash transactions over $10,000 (which they were required by law to track), but these transactions were then monitored and evaluated by one individual who followed such transactions for all branches in Loretta's area group. In this fashion, one of the functions typically ascribed to middle management-gathering and processing data on production-had been displaced by the breakdown and consolidation of portions of branch management into other specialized, standardized functional locations.
The AMG issued regular directives about rationalizing the branch system. Each AMG had small teams whose purpose was to devise new ways of performing jobs and increasing branch output, techniques to be implemented in all the branches. They ranged from efforts to improve the reliability of the financial base of the bank (Loretta's AMG, for example, was working on a pilot program to screen potential accounts, allowing the bank to check customers' financial back-grounds), to rationalizing a system of flexible labor to fill in at branches on a temporary basis (a floating, on-call service staff). Some AMGs also organized quality circles in branches. But the most significant of these tasks was the rationalization of the area group as a whole. The AMG supervised branch closings and consolidations on the orders of the regional policy groups, as mandated at the divisional level.
Loretta's branch, located on a commercial strip close to residential neighborhoods, was typical of many other American Security branches. For decades this urban branch had been an integrated and semi-autonomous service center: it served local clients with personal loans and savings and checking accounts. Many of its clients grew up with the American Security branch system and developed close banking ties with branch personnel. In addition, Loretta's branch made loans to the myriad small businesses that populated the area. Driving through almost any California city one could find similar integrated American Security Bank branches, vivid testimony to American Security's widespread brick and mortar growth strategy.
The high density of bank branches and the corresponding ratio of branches to customers had changed considerably over the two years before my interview. Loretta, who had worked in the branch system for twenty years, viewed this change as extremely dramatic. She counted three branches nearby that strategic management had closed in the preceding year and a half. Bank officials estimated that nearby branches could expect to acquire approximately 3,000 new accounts as a result of a branch closing. Thus, as the number of her branch personnel was decreasing, new savings and checking accounts were shifting over to Loretta's branch.
To address this problem in part, an electronic teller had been installed outside the front door. Theoretically many bank transactions would be transferred from the tellers inside the branch to the electronic teller outside. Indeed, one of the productivity goals in the AMG report was to increase electronic teller usage by 60 percent. Tellers were supposed to work at "converting" clients to the electronic teller; but then, they were also supposed to "sell" financial products across the counter and rarely had time to devote to either task. The "conversion rate" quota in the AMG report fell on Loretta's shoulders; as branch manager she was cast in the role of selling and legitimating the new technology to the bank's customers, convincing long-term clients, who had had personalized banking relations for years and were prejudiced against the new machinery, to begin using the depersonalized, often intimidating withdrawal and deposit technology.
Responsibility for rationalizing other functional and organizational changes to customers also fell on Loretta's shoulders. Bank clients regularly sought her out to complain when branches with which they had done business for years suddenly closed. Customers from neighboring areas were now forced not only to trek over to her branch but also to use electronic transaction procedures.
Perhaps the biggest functional change was the disappearance of the accessible and personalized lending apparatus. Branch top management centralized lending into specialized divisions, reflecting the bank's commitment to targeting and profiting from stratified market segments. As a result, all loan activities were routed around the branch system itself. The differentiation of the lending function into specialized units removed a significant source of Loretta's authority. She no longer had authority to make loans, nor did she manage loan personnel, a capacity that historically had qualified her for a higher job grade than the branch administrative officer (the branch manager's assistant).
By 1985 all lending officers had been removed from this branch; now, if anyone submitted a loan application, Loretta forwarded it to the appropriate consumer, real estate, or commercial loan center. She personally had loan quotas to fill, but, like tellers, her role in selling loans was strictly one of referral. And if the loan did not go through she did not receive credit for it. Loretta remarked that "branch managers are supposed to give the appearance of being salespersons; but their presence is largely symbolic." The cheery banner that stretched across her branch, exhorting "Need a loan? Call 800- . . ." did little to obscure the stark fact that the majority of individuals or small businesses had to pursue loans through impersonal, centralized sources. The red phone perched in the branch lobby, providing a direct hot line to the loan center, only accentuated the distance and anonymity of the new lending process.
Another important aspect of branch managers' work was siphoned off in this period, as strategic management ordered the centralization of personnel management into the AMG. At one time Loretta would have approved or disapproved a simple performance plan and taken appropriate action on awarding pay raises (within her branch budget). In a system of area management, branch managers no longer possessed ultimate authority to evaluate and approve an employee's performance. Loretta would forward the performance evaluation plans, which had been written by her assistant (the branch administrative officer) and approved by Loretta, to her own manager at the AMG. The new PPCE and the extensive documentation it contained provided the area manager with the information required for indirect management: in other words, it gave area managers more control over individual branches. The PPCE linked the AMG to branch employees in an apparatus of accountability; it could be used as a basis of decision making about rewarding employees or managing them out. For Loretta, the new system severed an important link between evaluating and directing those she managed, on the one hand, and rewarding them, on the other.
A new link, however, was put in place in 1984. Employees seeking other jobs within the corporation were no longer able to apply for those jobs entirely on their own: the internal labor market was not an open one. As part of the new "career management" program, branch employees were required to solicit Loretta's written permission when they applied for other bank jobs, in effect confirming that the employee was available and qualified to apply. Thus Loretta was still an important link in the path of mobility.
Group area managers scrutinized the PPCEs, and they reranked all branch employees by merging them into a pool of all employees in the area group. Loretta was also ranked against managers from the other branches in her area. For her own evaluation, she met with her AMG manager and a human resources committee. She was, she said, ranked as part of a separate middle management curve; as a result of her last evaluation session, two managers in her area who had received fairly low rankings left their branch management jobs and entered jobs with lower grades. Loretta also lost her flexible, branch-level hiring privileges. The AMG determined the parameters of hiring: if Loretta were given permission to hire in her branch, it would be someone from the pool of the redeployed.
Loretta thus had an intermediary role grounded in the lingering symbolic authority of the branch manager. She was to improve the work performance of branch employees, but in fact the AMG was the final arbiter of wages and promotions. The position was an uneasy one, for Loretta felt she had few grounds on which to justify why branch employees did not receive salary increases and why, when no replacements for those who had left were in sight, she was unable to gain approval for a "rec" (a requisition for new branch employees). Still, the PPCE did have to pass through Loretta's hands before going to the area manager for approval; this small act, plus the fact that she still was top management's representative in the branch, made Loretta feel that she still had some degree of leverage with her employees.
In a very bald way, her AMG manager looked to her to manage and legitimate the disruptive aspects of the major corporate changes that were taking place. On the one hand, she would receive summary reports stating that her branch was overstaffed, even when the number of employees had declined through attrition. Yet while the AMG mandated lower staffing levels, it simultaneously called on Loretta to cover up the bank's larger goal of cutting personnel. The tension between these two roles-cutting staff and covering up staff reductions-emerged explicitly when she (and all branch managers) received a "communiquÃ©" ordering her to hold staff meetings to tell employees that the bank had no intention of engaging in layoffs. Thus the AMG required branch managers both to implement staff cuts based on statistical criteria and to reassure bank employees that systematic staff cuts were not taking place.
The growing similarity between managers' work and tellers' work exacerbated the uneasiness of the manager's role. Loretta spent a significant amount of time "on he line": working in the capacity of teller, she enabled her declining staff to meet branch business. From the perspective of branch business as a whole, Loretta's work as a teller filled critical gaps in branch staffing. In other words, the speedup of branch operations was predicated on the "demanagerialization" of Loretta's position.
New sales quotas on her own PPCE meant that the teller window was an advantageous location from which she could approach customers about purchasing an IRA, a safety deposit box, or one of the many types of checking accounts. But as Loretta crossed the occupational boundary line into the ranks of teller, and faced "production quotas" very similar to those of her tellers and customer service representatives, she felt increasingly ineffective as a representative of the decisions of the AMG.
Certain ingredients of branch managers' jobs were transferred to and consolidated in the AMG. Another displacement of the management function consisted of upgrading lower-level employees and authorizing them to take over other tasks. A balance of power between Loretta and her tellers shifted in relation to changes in her position as an ultimate source of approval for certain shop-floor transactions. The bank had upgraded some tellers to the status of corporate officer, which entailed special training and lowering the cutoff point of officer status to encompass the job grade that included tellers. As officers, tellers were vested with authority to approve transactions hitherto confined to higher levels of supervision. Thus, for example, tellers were gaining the authority to authorize transaction amounts and types of checks for which they previously had needed the authorization of either a supervisor (branch administrative officer) or branch manager. Upgrading transactional authority by upgrading tellers paved the way for eliminating on-site management of daily operations.
Branch Managers and Managing Change
Many of the changes in the branch system were enduring and absolute. As personnel and operations management were transferred into the area management group, branch managers were managed and monitored more actively than ever before. Although this restructuring process may have sharply circumscribed their room for maneuver, branch managers did act on the restructuring processes that were so radically transforming their workplace. Organizational restructuring could not strip branch managers of their capacity to organize work processes within the branch or to use their accumulated expertise to find different ways to increase branch productivity. Nor could it completely eliminate managers' interests in engendering consent to increased productivity. Branch managers received orders from above, yet reinterpreted them, linking the new agenda with their own production constraints.
Branch managers were pressured to do more with fewer employees. Faced as they were with demands to increase productivity (by AMG reports and by the objectives written into managers' PPCEs to reduce staff), branch managers were to manage out employees who were at the bottom of the ranked curve in their branches. Managing out, according to Loretta, would further strain a situation in which current staff were already exceedingly stretched. She needed to maintain a certain staff level to meet branch business, even if some tellers were not as fast as others and some lacked total comprehension of all the new bank products (which numbered well over a hundred).
Moreover, she felt that if the burden of restructuring were individualized in this way, she would have great difficulty maintaining her "managerial legitimacy," however tenuous. The slow and arduous mechanics of managing out would, she claimed, have an extremely demoralizing impact on remaining staff and resources. She would have to identify and start coaching her lowest performers, cautioning them that if they did not meet new productivity levels they might be put on probation; she had to seek approval from her manager and consult with various personnel specialists and occasionally lawyers to determine whether she or the bank might be liable for a discrimination suit.
Branch managers followed an alternative path to the individualizing strategy of managing out employees. They instead turned their efforts toward increasing the productivity of their branch as a whole by managing up their employees.
Often organizing team or group efforts, sometimes utilizing a language of self-management, branch managers focused on managing up the performance of the unit by mobilizing their employees, individually and in groups, to work harder. This unit-centered strategy allowed managers both to avoid intense privatization and individualization of their daily managerial relations and to comply with the larger objective of recapturing the bank's competitive edge.
Managers employed a number of measures to improve the productivity of their branches: they worked on line with the tellers; managed up individual employees by pushing them to sell more products and to convert more customers to new deposit, withdrawal, and checking procedures and by pushing them to attend more and diverse training classes; organized branch employees into quality circles (which were, without exception, geared to finding productivity improvements for the branch); and obtained greater employee participation in establishing and working toward new and higher personal objectives on the performance planning forms. As long as performance plans still passed through the hands of the branch manager, he or she continued to use the PPCE to set higher objective levels for employees. Branch managers' efforts thus were localized within the branch as they attempted to organize and elicit greater cooperation from their employees to respond to new pressures.
Working to increase the productivity of the branch as a whole was one defense against having systematically to apply arbitrary criteria for managing out individuals, a process both personally painful and organizationally costly. In this way, branch managers used the few sources of organizational leverage remaining to them to influence the direction of the corporate restructuring process; they avoided politicizing their daily managerial relations and tried to focus employees' efforts on improving the performance of the branch. Through the unit-centered strategy, however, they also attempted to fend off the "final directive" from the AMG: the order to close the branch.
Loretta, for example, explicitly saw herself as fending off the demise of her own branch. To this end she strove to overcome her tellers' resistance to "selling" customers on the electronic teller system (they disliked having to do this because customers themselves resisted abandoning their personalized relations with human tellers). She also pushed tellers to attend and participate in product training and documentation classes so that her branch would remain competitive with other branches (employee training and productivity were compared with other branch employees in the AMG). Besides coaching individuals about the need for training, she organized tellers to meet before the branch opened for brief informational sessions about the work ahead of them and to travel as a group to attend classes.
She did these things despite the tellers' angry claims that they were "never left alone" and were constantly being pushed to train in new areas. Persuading employees to meet and exceed new quotas was a more credible approach to the strained situation in her branch than trying to edge already scarce workers out of the branch office. Although branch managers had little power over decision making about branch closures, her efforts were devoted to managing up the productivity of her workers to ensure the survival of the branch.
In a somewhat atypical, but nevertheless illustrative, approach to branch problems, a few branch managers sought collective reinforcement for their attempts to increase branch productivity at the group level. After attending a management training seminar, dissatisfied with the individualizing effects of the new policies and pressures, and with the isolation they felt under the slew of directives emanating from their AMG, Meredith King and a fellow branch manager organized a one-day seminar for their assistant managers and a few of their top employees. They rented a hotel room, ordered take-out food, and spent one Saturday systematically going over some of the new "rules and regulations" to develop, as they put it, a common framework from which they could all face the many pressures facing them in their work. Hypothetical conflict situations between managers and nonmanagerial employees were "role played"; new branch quotas, the mechanics of PPCEs, salary packages, and the crisis conditions facing the bank were discussed.
Meredith's seminar was symbolically and organizationally important. Forming lateral ties with a manager in a similar position legitimized her efforts and helped her gain the confidence of her employees. By conducting the seminar on her own time and at her own and her fellow manager's expense, Meredith relayed the message that she was pooling her efforts with those of her workers, rather than simply expecting them to bear the full brunt of increasing productivity. In other words, this outside seminar provided an additional opportunity for persuasion and manipulation. She appealed to her employees' loyalties and commitments in a highly personalized setting; she used the language and process of the team approach to let them know how much she depended on them and to gain their compliance to the new productivity goals of the branch.
To accentuate the importance of their heightened participation, Meredith also emphasized the possible negative outcomes corporate restructuring could have on her employees' jobs. This tactic was shared by another branch manager, Norma Levinworth. Norma rejected the notion that a good manager was opaque and that she should privatize the impact of the restructuring process. Striving for a process that would produce results similar to the ones Meredith King achieved in her day-long seminar, Norma held regular meetings with her branch employees to keep them informed of what she knew about ongoing branch closures, and what she had heard, if anything, about their branch. She used these meetings also to point out problems that might arise as a result of staff reduction through redeployment and pressures on tellers to sell new products with less time to do so. Employees as a group strategized ways to confront these pressures.
These examples point out how branch managers worked around the demand, promoted in the seminar, that they should obfuscate top management's agenda and the facts about corporate restructuring. They instead used a method of transparent management for their own purposes. Loretta rejected that demand in another way: when she met with her employees to assure them that there would be no layoffs (following the orders of her communiquÃ©) she refused to understate the situation. She prepared a presentation detailing the economics of the branch and the continued pressures that employees should expect, despite the absence of formal layoffs.
Thus, even though she could reassure her branch workers to some degree, she called for a collective response by publicizing selected facts about the crisis situation. In the eyes of strategic management, Meredith, Norma, and Loretta committed the sin of being transparent managers. But they calculated that hiding the truth about corporate restructuring could be more costly, with respect to maintaining a stable level of operations and the trust of their employees, than exposing employees to the crisis of the bank. Their response was to depict the pressures on the branch as something that could be met only by collective, group efforts.
The strategy of deliberate transparency coincided with another pattern in which branch managers promoted greater group effort by advocating self-management of the workplace. To some degree it would be correct to see middle managers' interests in self-management as evidence of self-coercion: by pushing responsibility downward, branch managers were ostensibly organizing themselves out of functional positions. One might even hypothesize that where managers' jobs were threatened, they might react in quite a different way. They might espouse anti-self-management philosophies or try to protect their managerial status even more by embracing some philosophy of the importance of hierarchy and the role of managers in maintaining it.
Indeed, at times branch managers' articulation of the issue of self-management seemed to run directly counter to their own positional interests. Brian Corning adamantly assured me that he was "not a manager, not a supervisor, but a facilitator. People should take responsibilities; employees have to take more risks." In this role he tried to get branch workers to sell financial services more actively, to generate ideas collectively for coping efficiently with longer lines of customers, and to strategize ways that workers could take more responsibility for branch affairs. Brian's statement, and the statements of others who advocated decentralized responsibility in these terms, seemed to suggest that branch managers were simply and blindly managing themselves out of jobs. But in fact, the middle-managerial ideology of self-management and decentralization intersected with a struggle for the very existence of their jobs and of the branch itself.
Managers facilitated the demanagerialization of their workplace, espousing self-management in an ongoing attempt to improve the performance of the branch and stave off possible branch closure. Because the ultimate criteria for closing branches were factors outside branch managers' control, they tried to find daily work mechanisms through which they, as managers with an integral role in facilitating productivity, could enhance a group effort and thus branch profitability to the greatest degree possible.
Self-management did not entail the elimination of managers' jobs, in their view; greater initiative, and therefore productivity, on the shop floor was made possible through the efforts of managers. By encouraging branch employees to take more responsibility for branch productivity and to be more attuned to the general crisis of the bank, branch managers believed they had a better chance of avoiding branch closure in the long run.
This link between ideology and branch survival shed light on another paradox: how branch managers discussed concepts such as entrepreneurialism and risk taking. On first encountering these concepts in our interviews, I was struck by the incompatibility between genuine entrepreneurialism and work life in a large corporation that was visibly contracting. However, these ideologies became less paradoxical when branch managers explained them in terms of efforts devoted to branch survival. As they elaborated their precise definitions of entrepreneurialism or risk taking under the conditions they faced, they referred to working harder, getting their hands "dirty" on the line, and engaging in nonmanagerial work tasks.
Evidence of business overload in Adele Silverstein's branch was vivid. In the stately lobby of her enormous metropolitan branch, the velvet ropes that channeled lines of people as they waited for a teller had recently been restrung to accommodate increasing numbers of customers. The new lines wove back and forth five or six times, nearly filling the large lobby. This branch no longer had a manager; Adele, as the branch administrative officer, reported directly to her area manager (her AMG happened to be located in the upper floors of this immense building).
Adele Silverstein assured me that she had always been a risk taker. This meant to her that she was never hidden away in her branch office, directing the branch from afar; she "risked" herself by stepping down into the nonmanagement ranks, working side by side with nonmanagerial employees. Her definition of risk taking also was colored throughout by a philosophy of decentralized responsibility and greater worker participation. In the context of the bank's financial crisis, she felt that more than ever managers must step down from the managerial pedestal and encourage bank employees to start "turning a profit for themselves [taking greater responsibility for overall branch business] by being more profitable for the company." Her worry that managers might "hide behind their management status," that they might not plunge into the gritty work of daily business, had a very practical component. Strategic management was targeting managers under the current branch reconfiguration plan, and even branch administrative officers like herself might gradually be phased out. Adele felt that taking risks and having the courage to abandon the managerial role occasionally might ultimately contribute to branch survival.
It is significant, then, that branch managers did not reject the notion of entrepreneurialism out of hand. In contrast to the organizational-behavior researchers' claims that middle managers refuse to innovate or to embrace the idea of working in entrepreneurial ways, these branch managers were extremely innovative, although they used different criteria from those spelled out for them by the bank's top managers. Their definition of entrepreneurialism was infused with a content that corresponded to their practical situations.
Finally, in the context of centralization, demands for greater productivity and managers' aversion to proceeding with the managing-out process, branch managers' attitudes toward layoffs instigated by top management become comprehensible. Loretta's and others' statements that layoffs were a critical remedy to their managing situation at first seemed perplexing; their personnel shortages and concomitant demands for greater productivity suggested that the least desirable policy in the world would be further staff reductions. Considering the available options, however, Loretta felt that to-pmanagement-initiated layoffs would provide a legitimacy that she could not personally provide in her role as a "cheer-leader" for corporate reorganization-a term that she used bitterly, referring to being compelled to represent top management in managing an enormous amount of stress in her branch.
Her endorsement of more systematic layoffs reflected her feelings of powerlessness to create the kind of workplace in which she knew top management was ultimately interested: a dramatically pared down branch system staffed with workers who unquestioningly went along with work speed-ups and job cuts. Managers' unit-centered strategies, which focused on managing up, and their refusal to manage out thus were reinforced by their global critique of strategic management's mishandling of the bank restructuring.
Dan Wong, another long-term branch manager, shared Loretta's criticisms. The story that American Security Bank was not laying off its employees was "almost a myth," he succinctly claimed, and the underlying reality of what managers were being asked to do placed insurmountable pressures on them.
Top management should just as well come out and say exactly what's going on. People resent when they're told they're lucky to have a job [he had said that managers were supposed to employ this argument as ammunition for the managing-out process] or that if they can't accept change, then they're out. The practice of policies in the bank don't match the rhetoric of the top administration.