Manufacturing Management Ideology
In corporation after large American corporation, business
leaders are restructuring their operations to maintain competitiveness. They have placed
new objectives such as reducing labor costs-by extracting concessions from
professional and manual workers and increasing worker productivity across
the board (what some call "skimming the fat" from inflated
firms)-at the forefront of top management rhetoric and policy.
Corporate leaders now argue for flexibility and change. To set the
performance of U.S. corporations back on track, they warn, firms must change their
compensation systems for professional and managerial employees (from bureaucratic systems
to meritocracies), transform themselves from rigid bureaucracies to flexible, less
hierarchical structures, and shift from centralized to decentralized management practices. These new policies radically challenge the terms and conditions of
growth-engendered, bureaucratic, and generous employment contracts: the regularized,
stable framework of rules governing wages, promotions, and discipline (Edwards 1979).
Transforming corporate cultures also will lead to more competitive
corporate performances, according to this new outlook. The idea that corporate cultures
can determine the success or failure of large firms has captured the imagination of
business observers, academics, and lay persons alike. Peters and Waterman's In Search
of Excellence (1984) popularized the successful entrepreneurial cultures of such
companies as Hewlett-Packard and Procter and Gamble, while studies of the flexible
"art of Japanese management" (Athos and Pascale 1981; Ouchi 1981) alerted the
public to all that was wrong with rigid American bureaucrats.
The business press has taken up the thread, exploring the virtues and
disadvantages of evaluating firms from the cultural vantage point. Pascale (1984) extolled
the virtues of this perspective, arguing in Fortune magazine that management must
pay attention to the culture of the firm because a strong culture "supplements formal
rules," whereas a weak culture "can make organizational life capricious."
In a more skeptical vein, Uttal (1983), also writing in Fortune , cast a wary eye
on the "corporate culture vultures": consultants who capitalize on their alleged
expertise in repairing and redirecting company cultures.
Belief in the significance of culture has become powerful enough that
many of its advocates claim that poor, or under-managed cultures literally can block
successful corporate change (Businessweek , 14 May 1984; Halloran 1985). Many
companies now try to transform bureaucratic orientations, to push managers to
become more entrepreneurial and to take more risks, in order to overcome the harmful
effects of poor cultures. Top managers try to administer new
meaning throughout the firm by manipulating company symbols, myths, and history and to
overturn complacency by appealing to the pride and loyalty of all company employees.
American Security's strategic management exploited these claims, using
the management training seminars to reshape the bank's culture. The issues debated in
these seminars are at the heart of the transformation and possible degradation of
managerial, professional, and white-collar employment: a necessary transformation,
according to the contemporary management theorists, if U.S. industry is to regain its
The managers who were the subject of this study did not have a direct
formal role in formulating American Security's restructuring processes, although they were
targeted as the principal agents for achieving them. Through the training seminars,
strategic management inculcated an ideology of nonbureaucratic, coercive management that
would secure the legitimacy for, while obscuring, their restructuring agenda. The seminar
trainers gave middle managers the tools to ease out growth-based employment policies and
mobility opportunities and to usher in an employment framework shaped by constraint,
decline, and an ongoing struggle to achieve profitability. Middle managers were charged
with the mission of garnering the consent of employees to the daily, not-so-regularized
business of the firm.
If the corporate culture program and the new management methods outlined
in Chapter 2 represent the theory of individual judgment or autonomous management, then
the seminars and the act of teaching the new program represent the practice, and the
trainers the practitioners of individualizing management. In this uniquely collective
setting within an otherwise tremendously fragmented social system, middle managers were
exposed to the conditions facing other managers and were systematically subjected by the
trainers to strategic management's agenda. In addition, the seminar trainers attempted to
contain and channel possible resistance to the new managerial agenda by getting managers
to discuss their fears of and objections to change and to admit collectively the need for
a re-created management. The seminar interactions therefore provide an opportunity to
examine the process whereby middle managers were targeted as agents and objects of
Management Training and Managerial Consent
Management training programs serve, in part, as an arena in which
control over, and consent from, management will be gained. Utilizing an elaborate
apparatus of in-firm personnel relations, human resources, and management development
departments as well as outside consultants, top management in many firms has devoted
substantial resources to train managers away from the "point of production" in
order to produce and reproduce managerial commitments and ideology.
As early as the 1930s, personnel experts in American industry recognized
the importance of special training programs for foremen, above and beyond any
"managerial expertise" that could be acquired from experiences on the shop floor
(Jacoby 1985). Personnel managers used these programs to reshape foremen's role in a
highly volatile political context: top management and personnel specialists believed that
foremen's behavior could block, or conversely lead to, unionization of workplaces.
"The revival of foremen's training," Jacoby (1985) argues in his study of the
emergence of bureaucratic personnel practices, "was industry's plan to use foremen as
its first line of defense against unionism" (p. 230).
Training programs attempted to educate foremen about the limitations on
their power, encourage them to sell workers on company propaganda, train them in the human
relations approach to make them better managers, and bolster their loyalty to the company
(Jacoby 1985, pp. 230â“231). Thus such programs functioned to regulate the
arbitrary exercise of power by foremen and to promote a greater identification between the
objectives of foremen and the company. Patten (1968) similarly emphasizes the fact that
firms, the War Manpower Commission established during World War II, and YMCA foremen's
clubs trained foremen in the area of human relations theory (pp. 110â“117).
Management training programs emerged concurrently with a new
appreciation for "the mind of management" in the early decades of this century.
Corporations, unable to assume a managerialist orientation, used these training sessions
to professionalize and create an "elite" management (Bendix 1956, p. 320). The
methods used to reshape the managerial orientation-teaching the human
relations approach to managing employees; administering performance ratings of managers
through tests and interviews; scheduling weekend, evening, and other regular staff
meetings-added up to an agenda of "intensive communication," one
aim of which was that managers should manage in a more enlightened and effective fashion.
Some have prescribed training and education programs as a means to
gaining managerial-level employees' participation in new corporate goals. One way of
smoothing the route to corporate reorganization may be to involve managers in diagnosing
current organizational problems. Such organization-wide participation in training programs
may increase an overall and coordinated, rather than a departmental or competitive, point
of view (Argyris 1955). Furthermore, participation in collective organizational settings
is often used to exert top managerial control, contain conflict, and co-opt resistance
(Dickson 1981). By organizing group sessions, "top management can establish a
framework for participation which allows them to retain effective control" (Dickson
1981, pp. 162â“163).
The level of financial commitment made by U.S. firms to management
training underscores an ongoing preoccupation with securing managerial commitment to and
participation in corporate life. According to a 1986 survey, more firms offer formal
training programs to middle managers than to any other occupational group, with the
exception of executives (69.5 percent of the firms that responded provide training for
executives; 68.9 percent provide training for middle managers; and 61.2 percent of the
firms offer training to first-line supervisors; the next highest occupational category to
which firms provided training was office/clerical at 50.8 percent). Furthermore, in the
firms surveyed, middle managers receive on the average more hours of training (44.2
annually) than any other occupational group (see Gordon 1986b, table 1, p. 49). Another
survey concludes that by the year 2000 the average manager will spend eighty-two hours per
year in training programs, suggesting that there will be little abatement of this emphasis
on training and retraining managers (Fulmer 1986, p. 70).
Indicated by purely economic measures, American Security Bank's seminars
represented an extremely significant deployment of resources. The training seminars were
organized by an elaborate management development division, set up in 1983 for the sole
purpose of administering the managerial turnaround. The management division was staffed by
American Security's management-level employees rather than outside management consultants,
although outsiders were initially employed to assist in designing the program. At any
given time approximately twenty-five managers were teaching the classes; in addition,
several managers and supporting staff ran the operation.
The management development division paid a high price to provide a
comfortable, even generous setting for the seminars. For the first two years the seminars
were nearly always conducted in resort hotels around the state, where all participants
stayed for the entire five days. With all expenses paid at
vacation-like locations and paid time off from jobs, the seminar week was seen as a
privileged break from work.
In structure and timing, the seminars departed radically from the way in
which managers had been socialized in the past, changes that indicated a significant
organizational measurement of the training. Before the management training program was
introduced in 1983, managers received no regular, systematic training as managers in
American Security Bank. Although a manager might have attended
one of a number of thematic classes at some point in his or her career (such as
classes in communications, career planning, and leadership or functionally specialized
classes such as credit training or use of on-line computer systems), few had attended occupational
classes that would prepare them for their new role. Furthermore, participation even in
thematic programs was inconsistent across the bank. Employees of the bank were frequently
promoted into management positions without first undergoing managerial job training. This
historical lack of rigorous socialization of managers throws the new agenda for middle
managers into even sharper contrast; the new regime represented a major reallocation of
organizational resources to re-creating management.
Finally, the use of bank employees to teach the seminars provides
testimony to the ideological dimension of the training. Each seminar was run by three
trainers, drawn from diverse sectors of the bank. Managers who worked as trainers did so
for two years, after which time they returned to the working ranks of management. Coming
from diverse organizational locations throughout the bank, the trainers were individuals
who had chosen the training position either as a respite from their normal work or because
they had been redeployed as a result of restructuring. Their
personal histories with the bank allowed these in-house trainers to claim that they
identified with both the plight of managers and the need for new corporate goals;
theoretically they possessed the legitimacy to galvanize others to the mission of the
training seminar. The trainers and the seminar attendees were, after all, part of the same
big American Security "family."
Many of the seminar trainers evinced what amounted to a religious
devotion to strategic management's goals, taking extremely seriously their assignment to
incorporate middle managers into the fold of corporate change. As one particularly
articulate woman impressed on me, her purpose in working as a management trainer was to
spread Wedgewood's message and "give everyone an opportunity to change." Another
felt that he had "always been in the role of a change agent, but it was never
explicit"; in the role of seminar trainer, he felt that he had found his calling.
Even one male trainer who appeared to be somewhat cynical about his
"cheerleader" role continually and persuasively turned his acerbic style to the
objectives of the seminar, using sarcasm and irreverence to get middle managers to laugh
at and criticize themselves.
Despite the sincerity and enthusiasm with which the trainers undertook
their mission, their dual structural position imposed a notable tension within the seminar
proceedings. On the one hand the trainers were integrated into the personnel management
apparatus of the bank; in this sense they were the agents of strategic management's
agenda. On the other hand, their insider status occasionally made them more vulnerable to
managers' hostility. Their common position as managers in the bank increased their empathy
with middle managers, often leading them to accept passively the full brunt of managers'
criticisms about the organizational changes taking place.
Their struggle to reconcile these two facets of their position, to make
sense of the hostility showered on them by seminar participants, without, for the most
part, condemning those participants, was often painfully apparent. At several very awkward
moments in the seminars, the trainers truly lacked answers for the concerns participants
were raising. However, this did not stop the trainers from otherwise maintaining a very
consistent approach in steering and controlling group discussions.
Inside the Management Seminars: Organization and Politics
My position at a table with the trainers in the back of the seminar
room gave me a comprehensive view of the entire seminar proceedings. In contrast, only a
handful of participants could see us. Those attending the seminar sat at a U-shaped
arrangement of tables: facing each other around the U, the fifteen to twenty-five
participants were fully visible to one another. The very formal, even lavish, environment
(all the tables had floor-length skirted tablecloths; each place setting had an elegant
name card facing outward for all to see; large pitchers of ice water were placed every few
feet along the table; and every position had a pile of literature-fat binders
full of seminar information-along with pens and pencils imprinted with the
company logo) contributed to a sense of important purpose. Indeed, we were all about to
embark on the very serious and collective endeavor of reconstructing management.
American Security's management seminars shared many characteristics of
human potential courses; the "take responsibility for your own actions" ethos,
so dominant in the human potential movement, enhanced the objective of individualizing
management. Managers participated extensively, as the trainers
encouraged them to examine and discuss their feelings about the many changes confronting
them. Although there was a high tolerance for "sharing" one's feelings, however,
the range of topics and the tone in which they were discussed were closely managed by the
The trainers walked the participants through a number of curriculum
modules and attempted to delimit carefully the directions in which discussions could move.
The objectives of the seminar included describing the theory behind the newly instituted
performance planning, coaching, and evaluation system (PPCE),* and discussing situational
leadership and the new corporate culture, otherwise known as "Vision, Values, and
Techniques to regularize management pervaded all aspects of the seminar
and its preparation. The standardization of course materials and curriculum created a
coherent and professional image of the project at hand. Visual devices such as charts,
graphs, and poster-size illustrations were hung around the conference room. Each class
member received reams of written material mass-produced for the seminars by the bank's
management development division. Consisting of books explaining the use of the PPCE,
salary administration, and how to be a career counselor to one's employees, the material
also included a number of articles on corporate culture, change, and resistance to change
from such business publications as the Harvard Business Review .
Before attending the seminar each manager engaged in a self-monitoring
exercise by filling out a "leadership practices inventory" (LPI) and
administering this same inventory to his or her employees. The inventory assessed how good
a leader each manager was from the perspective of both the manager and the people he or
she managed. (Inventory items asked whether they managed conflict or change well and
whether or not they were good decision makers.) The manager submitted all the inventories
to the management development staff, who tallied up the results. The trainers distributed
computerized tabulations of each manager's leadership skills, results that were later used
to analyze and suggest improvements for the manager's performance.
The trainers began by having participants state their names and what
they wanted to gain from the seminar. Managers' statements simultaneously reflected their
uneasiness about the very meaning of the managerial role in the context of the bank's
crisis and expressed their interest in viable management guidelines. Comments ranged from
"I want to learn how to be a good people manager," "I need to learn
hands-off managing," and "I want to learn how to get good people to work harder
when they don't want to" to "I'm trying to decide whether or not I even want to
be a manager," and "I need to learn to cope with the PPCE."
The trainers then proceeded with a presentation that showed how the
bank's changes were related to the crisis in the banking industry. Always careful to
emphasize the factors external to the firm that were creating a need for a new managerial
orientation, the trainers showed the "big picture"-the turbulent
environmental and financial conditions facing the bank-and its effects on
working conditions in the office and on the shop floor. The discussion of the bank's
financial and organizational difficulties, market factors in particular, parallels the
"exposure strategy" cited by Whalley (1986) in his study of engineers. Firms
encouraged a "managerialist" orientation by exposing their engineering employees
to financial and organizational information about the company's competitive situation (p.
227). Presumably exposure compels employees-professional or
managerial-to identify with and work to achieve profitability objectives.
Starting with the principles of the new corporate culture captured in
the program of Vision, Values, and Strategies, the trainers demonstrated how the larger
direction and profitability of the bank directly affected and were affected by what went
on in the bank's many divisions, offices, and branches. They further argued that they
could offer concrete tools to enable managers to make a positive contribution to the
bank's larger direction.
The trainers introduced the Performance Planning, Coaching, and
Evaluation (PPCE) procedure as the mechanism linking corporate strategic plans to daily
work processes at all levels of the bank. The procedure would allow middle managers to
translate top management's plans for a leaner, more entrepreneurial, nonbureaucratic
organization into concrete personnel and employment policies. As one trainer noted,
discussing a chart that showed the relationship between corporate business plans and the
"action plans" of individual managers, the PPCE "holds this whole scheme
Throughout the seminar exercises, managers demonstrated a good
understanding of the big picture and agreed with the general need for greater productivity
to improve the financial health of the corporation. The consensus emerged that to rectify
the current crisis, action was necessary at all levels of the corporation. This consensus
is the axis of intra-management unity, representing the convergence of middle and
strategic management interests.
But another consensus emerged, one that united middle managers
but separated them from strategic management. While lower-level managers agreed with
strategic management's agenda for achieving larger profitability objectives, they diverged
from that agenda over the methods by which those objectives could be achieved. Although
corporate restructuring created very different pressures for different groups of managers,
these managers nevertheless agreed that the new managerial orientation would undermine
rather than promote long-term consent to the restructuring process; they felt that their
ability to elicit productive work behavior was threatened by what they perceived as a
skewed definition of entrepreneurialism and an arbitrary set of management methodologies.
Middle managers anticipated heightened politicization resulting from the
new emphasis on using individual managerial judgment to push through a new productivity
program. In the context of contraction and the decline of organization-wide mechanisms of
control, the arbitrary management schemes and the new definition of management on which
they were based would weaken bases for managerial authority. The trainers countered these
concerns by reinterpreting the organizational politics of corporate restructuring as
neutral organizational problems caused by individual psychological maladjustment,
and to be solved by individual managerial judgment.
Extracting Greater Effort: Minimum Job Requirements
Recent theories of corporate structure have blamed lack of
productivity and innovation in large corporations on too great a dependence on
centralized, bureaucratic rules. Thus some have argued for replacing strictly bureaucratic
organization with less hierarchical, more fluid structures which would facilitate
decentralized, innovative management action (cf. Kanter's  discussion of the
"integrative" corporation). American Security Bank imported elements of this
critique of bureaucratic behavior into the new management platform. One attempt to redress
the ills of bureaucracy consisted of weaning managers and employees from the allegedly
binding and stultifying job descriptions on which positions had historically been based.
Emphasis on merely satisfactory job performance, according to the
seminar trainers, was a legacy of a profitable, complacent banking environment. Managers
who did not look for ways to wring more out of the jobs and the people they managed were
encouraging mediocrity. Thus managers should look for ways to "raise the bar"*:
to upgrade jobs by raising the "minimum job requirements" (MJRs)* for
positions. In so doing managers could become innovators in their own units. The trainers
argued that middle managers should reorient their thinking away from bureaucratically
constricting, standardized job descriptions based on position and focus instead on
increasing results in order to contribute to improved corporate performance. This they
would do by setting "stretch objectives"*: upgrading people by pushing
them to achieve even higher levels of output. In lieu of
specific recommendations for upgrading jobs and jobholders, the seminar trainers
continually advocated leaving managers alone to upgrade through vigorous and flexible use
of management judgment.
The trainers informed me, before "class" began, that the
discussions of MJRs were always the most difficult modules of the seminars, because
managers held so much "irrational resistance" toward this fundamental change in
their orientation to managing. This precaution heightened my anticipation of the module
devoted to the MJR. What was it about this topic that could unnerve the trainers so much
that they would warn me about it beforehand? Why were middle managers so protective of
"across the board" or organizationally consistent MJRs?
The discussions of minimum requirements for a job demonstrate why
American Security's managers held a quite rational resistance to the demise of a
bureaucratic framework for managing. From middle managers' perspective, companywide
standardized job expectations were important for regularizing their evaluations of
employees' performance. The loss of such standards connoted a level of chaos that would
undermine the new responsibilities with which these managers were saddled. Yet in the
seminars the trainers insisted that the bank, in its current process of change, could no
longer come up with positional levels appropriate for the entire corporation. Managers
must use their own judgment instead and take responsibility for determining new and higher
After introducing the idea that managers should deemphasize minimum job
requirements and emphasize increased results, one of the trainers attempted to neutralize
the politics of upgrading jobs and individuals. Rather than discuss MJRs as an important
benchmark by which managers could consistently evaluate employees, this trainer attempted
to get managers to think of MJRs as something merely psychological. Calling MJRs
"only a tool, only a consideration in the thought process," she anticipated
managers' reluctance to abandon a more centralized framework for managing, acknowledging
in a sympathetic voice that "many of you will find it hard to come up with positional
MJRs." She went on to place the onus on managers, however, saying "You as
manager need to go through the thought process, figure out what you need. There are very
few positions in the corporation for which we can come up with across-the-board
She admonished the seminar participants not to expect centralized
guidelines in measuring employee performance. Insisting that standardized job requirements
were inappropriate for a firm as diverse and changing as rapidly as American Security,
this trainer suggested that they were, in fact, the true impediments to productive
management; reworking productivity standards through the appropriate thought process was
the sign of the truly entrepreneurial manager.
Another trainer hinted at the real purpose behind
"deemphasizing" MJRs; he repeated the charge that standardized expectations of
employees block innovation and productivity. His approach is telling, for it recasts the
productivity problem as a problem of individuals and their psychological propensities.
"Let's think about human nature," he argued. "If we just had MJRs, why
would people work any harder than just the minimum?"
One trainer, named Kathryn, reiterated that managers should be
"raising the bar" (or minimums) of as many jobs as they could. Dave, a seminar
participant, argued against managers' role in utilizing personal judgment to shift the
boundaries of productivity in this way: "If we don't have a standard, we can't do
this." Kathryn insisted that in fact Dave did have a standard-his
managerial judgment. Management judgment simply did not carry weight with Dave, however.
Thinking ahead to his work situation, Dave touched on the contradiction between the agenda
of the seminar (to get managers to increase productivity and to slim down the corporation
in a context of contraction and declining rewards) and the tools being offered to managers
to achieve that agenda. He insisted that strategic management should execute the new
corporate agenda more directly by selling assets and closing unprofitable units, arguing
that middle managers did not have the means to manage effectively by individual judgment.
To Kathryn's claim that he possessed a valid standard, Dave replied, "No, I don't,
but the corporation does. And this is leading to change and downgrading. We cannot manage
these processes without a corporate standard."
Middle managers quickly caught on to what it meant in practice to
deemphasize standardized job descriptions in the service of higher productivity levels.
Helen argued that if everyone in her unit were told that they had different and
fluctuating MJRs, she could say goodby to any possibilities for increasing productivity.
Her employees would constantly be at Employee Relations (an employee/management mediating
unit within the bank) to force greater consistency in evaluation procedures. Other
participants jumped into this discussion, with Mavis asserting that "If there are
different MJRs for fourteen different people in similar jobs, there is going to be
trouble." A trainer intervened to redirect what had become a very contentious drift,
arguing that raising job minimums to different levels for different individuals was a very
natural task, simply part of a thought process in which managers logically connected
individual job performance with the larger profitability objectives of the firm. "We may be getting off on a tangent. The key is that managers
must go through the thought process of knowing what you need for business goals and
articulate these minimums to employees. It's a tool."
The trainers' behavior during discussions of MJRs and objectives visibly
expressed their discomfort at being the objects of managers' antagonism. They walked
nervously around the room, they more frequently interrupted discussions among
participants, and they called for unscheduled break intervals at the peaks of heated
Trainers also used dismissive statements, such as "We may be
getting off on a tangent" or "That's an excellent point and I'd like to save
that for a future discussion" to defuse "hot points" during the seminars.
But this marginalizing tactic did not deter Helen from insisting that concepts such as
"thought process" and "individual judgment" were vague and of little
help. The trainers might extol the virtues of management theory, claiming it provided an
orderly and rational means of gaining greater worker effort, but the difficulty of
managing the politics of a speedup were clear to Helen. Her concern, she argued, was not
with abstractions and theory, but with "fairness and consistency. The practicality
[of managing up employees' performance] is, you'd better know what you're doing."
The seminar trainers used the language of thought process to promote a
framework of individual, innovative managerial action, at the same time playing down the
negative implications of the new framework. The language allowed the trainers to dilute
the significance of both the pressure on middle managers to increase productivity and the
lack of centralized guidelines for doing so. In the framework of individualized
responsibility, MJRs were no longer a set of guidelines for evaluating job performance:
they were no more than an element of the thought process through which managers had to go
to increase productivity.
Managers were not agents of a speedup of their employees' work: their
role in increasing results was merely part of a thought process in which working to
increase productivity steadily was a normal task, to be rationally incorporated into a
manager's everyday job. The trainers minimized the import of "raising the bar"
by expressing surprise and scoffing at the disturbed responses of the seminar
participants. Recasting the political problems of consent and cooperation as simple
individual problems, the trainers insinuated that any rational manager should be able to
resolve the "minor" conflicts of organizational change.
At the same time, the insistent focus on managerial judgment to increase
productivity formalized strategic management's agenda to individualize the responsibility
of corporate change. As managers repeatedly voiced their dissent to having to manage each
individual employee with less centralized guidance, they met even greater insistence that
they were to use situational leadership to obtain higher performance levels from all
In response to managers' apprehensions about the new emphasis on
increasing results, one of the trainers cavalierly suggested that managers should simply
write in (on employee performance evaluations) as much stretch as possible. After a
manager carefully considers all aspects of a position and an employee's capabilities, that
manager should "take risks" to "encourage workers to increase output":
the trainer asked, "Shouldn't we raise the bar? Don't we ask more of them?"
Sandy, a branch manager concerned about the disruptive aspects of both the random
application of high stretch levels and the sudden transition from rewards for efforts and
seniority to rewards for results, was very agitated as she asked, "How do you
arbitrarily raise the bar for someone who has worked with the bank for fifteen
years?" The trainer gave a response that reflected the individualizing thrust of
situational leadership: "You know management isn't easy. You've got to use J. You
need to get involved in the process. We can't give you a cookbook."
The managers attending the seminars did not disagree with the need to
find more effective ways of managing, but they did protest the impact that these
particular methods would have on managerial effectiveness and legitimacy. Chris's response
further illuminates middle managers' dilemma over the demise of more standardized
guidelines in this organizational context. Chris was responsible for over eighty indirect
reports in an area management group in the retail division. She was an extremely
accomplished employee and had received the bank's prestigious "golden pin of
merit" (an award given out by the corporate personnel department for outstanding
performance); at the end of the week-long seminar her fellow participants voted her
"best manager" of their class. Presumably an ideal manager from the perspective
of top management, Chris expressed her agreement throughout the seminar for many of top
management's goals. But she was also quite articulate about her differences with certain
aspects of those goals.
After a particularly long and antagonistic discussion of the process of
raising the bar and deemphasizing minimum job requirements in which she urged that
managers not penalize employees for managerial misjudgment, Chris attempted to sum up the
basis of the group's opposition to the methodologies presented by the trainers: "I
think we felt threatened when you said to take away the minimum job requirements.
You're taking away one of our important measuring tools." Her comment seemed to
embolden Ralph, who earlier had expressed anger when the trainers denied the importance of
bureaucratic standards. He interjected, "You got my back up over the terminology
change. Different areas have different needs and standards. When you admit the importance
of MJRs I don't get bent out of shape. I'm going to go back and do things exactly the same
way I have been." Judging by the rather defiant murmur that followed his words, this
opinion was shared by others as well.
Managing Structural Change
Managers' fears were exacerbated similarly when they were confronted
with the demand to increase productivity and set new objectives in the context of
"nonnegotiable" changes*: loss of personnel and funding and possible workplace
closure. These structural transformations complicated managers' role in pressuring
employees for greater work effort. And the language and management method of
individualization failed to obscure the exploitative nature of the changes taking place,
on which individual managerial legitimacy had little bearing.
Barry, for example, had comanaged a branch for several years in the
position of branch administrative officer. He insisted that a key problem from his
perspective lay in getting his employees to stretch (to become more productive) when the
branches were undergoing staff reductions. Barbara, another branch manager, articulately
summed up the contradiction inherent in demanding stretch in a context of diminishing
As managers we're told to cut staff; we're told to turn our tellers
and ourselves into quality salespeople; and as managers we are supposed to increase our
supervision and general productivity. Branch managers are really figureheads in terms of
authority, yet we're under all this pressure: there is not really very much we can do.
These pressures similarly affected Rose, who managed fourteen loan
collection officers in the Southern California area. As the loan function was being
centralized, her loan officers couldn't "really give quality customer service. We
don't have the expertise or tools anymore to give informed answers to customer
questions." Further under the gun because her unit was responsible for loan
collection at precisely the time that the bank was facing unprecedented loan defaults,
Rose expressed great frustration over the fact that at her previous branch loan officers
had been pushed to "sell paper": to lend out money as rapidly as possible.
Rose's lack of control over the way functional changes affected the jobs
of her loan officers undermined her ability to understand existing productivity
objectives, quite apart from formulating new and higher ones. The transformation of this
function held other implications for Rose's job, because an increase
in customer complaints (due to confusion over the new organization of the loan process)
appeared on her PPCE as one negative measurement of her ability to "manage
change." When Rose expressed a great deal of anger about the bank's continuing to
make loans when its loan losses were beginning to look severe, Kathryn suggested that Rose
should seek innovative ways of facing the managerial challenge and recommended that Rose
ask herself "What can I do to help this situation?" This individualistic
recommendation triggered a long and heated discussion about managers' actual lack of
control over their work situations.
Managers were supposed to manage employees in a context of extreme
organizational uncertainty as the structure, labor process, and function of divisions
changed unevenly throughout the bank. When managers raised concerns about managing
uncertainty, they were given individualizing mechanisms for coping.
Middle managers frequently lamented the fact that they were kept in the dark about pending
corporate changes. Kathryn, one of the trainers, responded that managers should not reveal
their ignorance about the corporate restructuring process to their employees. Good
managers, she argued, were opaque and would maintain individual legitimacy by concealing
the inadequacy of their knowledge about the decline of the organization.
Managers should not be transparent. If a manager has to make a
decision and it is difficult-for example, if you're involved in a major
centralization of functions, or redeployment-when you're communicating these
changes to the employee, you should not be transparent.
You don't want to be saying "I don't really understand why the
company wants us to do this, but . . ."
Helen, who managed a group of data-entry workers, expressed her
frustration with this cryptic approach to managing change. One of the objectives on her
PPCE on which she would be evaluated was to increase the productivity of her
workers. But rumors were sweeping through her unit that some of these positions were going
to be eliminated. Her work group had subsequently been severely demotivated (sic)
and she had been unable to justify stretching on other than purely coercive terms
("no stretching, no jobs"). Thus what was transparent in her position was her
lack of control over and knowledge about the fate of the unit and her inability to conceal
the exploitative aspects of demands for a greater contribution to the firm.
Her workers plied her with questions about their future. She told her
seminar colleagues, "If I don't know why something is happening, I will say I just
don't understand." She felt that this bluntness, although it was a kind of
manipulation, would lend her far more credibility in the managing process. Kathryn
retorted, "What is your gut feeling? Use the Big J; be proactive; think ahead and be
more managing and instrumental." Helen responded, "I will try to find out what's
happening, but I am often unable to do so."
Kathryn refused to admit any larger organizational responsibility for
managers' dilemmas, continuing instead to pin responsibility for managing conflict and
change squarely to the shoulders of middle managers. She expressed an extreme version of
the individualist argument. "You're responsible for your own fate," she claimed.
The corporation may own your job but you own your career. You have to
try to manage the situation. If employees think they can see through you, you won't get a
commitment from them. The onus is on managers. Managers have to write the PPCEs; you have
to be taken seriously. Managers have to support top management. You have to be genuine. We
don't want "just compliance" from managers.
Sandy contended that this managerial approach to change was simply
irrelevant to her case: her employees discovered their branch was closing only when some
workers came by to place a bid on the reconstruction of their building. As one single
manager, Sandy rejected the idea that her legitimacy would justify, much less obscure,
this type of corporate change.
In the course of the seminar no definitive solutions were given for
achieving significantly higher productivity levels when employees and managers were unsure
of their occupational outcomes and when managers, with fewer personnel and budgetary
resources, lacked legitimate grounds for making employees work harder. When seminar
participants persisted in pushing harder to know how they were to extract more from
employees with fewer resources and guidelines, the trainers continually redirected
responsibility for the solution back onto the managers. As one trainer stated, "We
used to use the SPM as a source for all dos and don'ts. But times have changed. We
can't only follow rules; we have to ask ourselves: Does this make sense?"
Nor were managers satisfied that genuinely autonomous exercise of their
judgment was unambiguously sanctioned by top management. Managing out looked like a murky
process to middle managers, because the consequences of pushing workers to unreasonable
limits to increase productivity were clear. If a manager had not clarified and documented
every aspect of a work situation to the employee but had nevertheless fired or downgraded
him or her, the employee might feel that he or she had been misled and later sue the
bank-a turn of events for which the manager would ultimately be held
Several discussions centered on the procedures and implications of
managing out. The trainers used "case studies" to teach managers how to identify
and deal with poor performers. Many managers, however, were concerned about the
ambiguities of this process. Andy had managed eight people in a branch in the Los Angeles
area for seven years. He had been told that if a manager used language such as "might
terminate" in an employee's PPCE, and a labor board brought a case against the bank
for wrongful termination, "the judge might highlight the 'might' and inquire what the
alternatives were. It would shore up the employee's case against the manager."
The sensitive nature of managers' position in managing up or out was
further driven home by Ken, who had managed four lawyers in the bank's litigation
department for three years. As an older man, Ken had a perspective on the firm's legal
position gained from many years of private practice outside the bank and from his location
in the administrative inner sanctum of the bank. Ken was adamant; once a promise to an
employee had been violated, he warned, a manager should anticipate legal action taken by
that employee. "You're in a litigation context," he argued, "once a major
screwup has happened in personnel policy."
In one module of the seminar, trainers and participants discussed a case
study of a female employee who brought a discrimination suit against American Bank. The
intention of the discussion was to ascertain who and what had been responsible for
bringing on the suit. Tom, one of the trainers, argued that the fault lay with the
manager: "Lack of communication is the root cause of the problem. She can file a
discrimination suit-but what happens to American Bank when a suit is filed?
It gives the corporation a bad image. Managers should be talking to employees who feel
discriminated against. " Managers would be directly evaluated, on their PPCEs, on
how well they used their judgment in avoiding these negative scenarios.
Almost without fail, managers responded with confusion and frustration
to trainers' claims that managers must exercise discretion and judgment in dealing with
employees. As one participant wryly noted, "We're given discretion about disciplinary
action, but if I follow exactly what I want, the bank may be sued. I constantly must look
for advice. My employees know the SPM-they would be great
managers." At which point one of the trainers redirected the discussion: "Let's
keep this question in mind. I hope we can answer this during the week. We have to remember
the Big J. Your judgment: Can I do this or can't I?" Every so often the
contradictions inherent in the Big J would bubble to the surface. When Diane questioned
how a manager was to suspend a so-called poor performer, the trainers went to such lengths
to caution her that she burst out, "What happened to my judgment as a manager?
Suddenly I can't do anything unless I ask seventeen people before I send someone
Behind the concerns that managers had about increasing output was the
very serious problem of defining output and productivity rates in production contexts that
defied easy codification and quantification; this problem characterized many of the work
sites within this bank, and of course, many work sites within firms and industries in a
"postindustrial" or service-based economy. The fact that managers were being
asked to increase productivity when minimal standardized guidelines existed for many jobs
in the first place led to a good deal of confusion and frustration, expressed both in the
training seminars and in interviews.
Ken, the corporate attorney mentioned above, was furious about the
individualizing bias and the vague standards for productivity, in which all responsibility
for productivity was deemed to be the middle manager's. When his seminar group was shown a
diagram illustrating how each manager was supposed to increase the output of his or her
department by getting every employee to stretch, he exclaimed, "How does this get
affected if the input is inadequate? When I don't have enough people I cannot increase
Trainers insisted that output was the responsibility of the manager.
Bill equated output with a manager's efforts, asserting that employees will strive to
accomplish what they think the boss wants: "It's the manager who doesn't see the
environment properly, who doesn't expect enough stretch, who doesn't give challenging
enough assignments." The trainers referred to managers who would not get their
employees to stretch as deadwood, old-timers who resisted change. Despite this
condemnation, Diane blurted out in frustration that she would rather quit than extract
stretch from her employees through the criteria proposed by the trainers.
The individualizing thrust was similarly expressed whenever seminar
participants attempted to direct discussion of the current profitability crisis toward
strategic management. When trainers admonished them for middle managerial shortsightedness
and for being more self-centered than firm-centered, seminar participants in turn
challenged the firm's historical stress on what they called "corporate" as
distinct from "moral" values and questioned whether top management was
"being honest" about the root causes of the current dilemma.
The trainers trivialized dissenting individuals' efforts by forcing
participants to "own" their contesting statements as mere personal opinions,
again neutralizing the political issues of organizational restructuring by characterizing
the dissenters as organizational miscreants. Anytime participants questioned the
incompatibility between the human needs of people who worked in the corporation and the
needs of profit making, trainers dismissed the seriousness of the conflicts and reduced
them to "breakdowns" in managers' communication of the goals of the corporation
Managers anticipated many contradictory consequences from having to
increase productivity and reduce personnel just as standardized measures to implement this
ambitious agenda were disappearing. Thus intramanagement conflict crystallized in a
struggle over the very meaning and function of bureaucracy. As strategic management pushed
the ideological critique of managerial bureaucrats, middle managers asserted their case
for centralized, bureaucratic criteria in order to implement the new agenda. The seminars
became a site of struggle over the terms of management: managers challenged the new
definition of entrepreneurial management in an environment of contraction and challenged
the ways in which they were supposed to extract greater effort from those they managed.
Do the American Security Bank seminar proceedings mirror a battle
taking place across the ranks of American corporate management, a struggle over the theory
of management and over corporate management practices? Other examples support the claim
that corporations use cultural programs to position managers as objects and agents of
corporate change in this current era of industrial restructuring. These examples also
point to high levels of conflict within management over the new norms contained in
The very terminology of reporting in business publications suggests a
cultural onslaught against middle levels of management, a trend not confined to
information, financial, or service industries. One of the most well-publicized efforts
deliberately to transform a corporate culture has been that of General Motors Corporation.
Changing its culture was a tactical move in a long-term effort to "reinvigorate"
the company's business standing (Businessweek , 7 April 1986). In its
"corporate civil war" (presumably the equivalent of American Security's
"cultural revolution"), the auto firm cracked down on a perceived "culture
of complacency" and the ethos that permeated what chief executive officer Roger Smith
called the "frozen middle" of management. Thawing out that frozen middle by
eliminating bureaucratic layers of managers-eliminating one-quarter of its
managerial work force by 1990, to be precise-was one of the central aims of
GM's corporate culture program (Fortune , 10 November 1986).
A similar effort was undertaken by the Ford Motor Company. The firm
administered tests of managerial style and culture in workshops for managers; 76 percent
of those tested were classified as "noncreative types," too willing to accept
authority (Wall Street Journal , 3 December 1985). One observer declared the 1980s
the "decade of the cultural revolution" after American Telephone and Telegraph
adopted a program for changing its company culture during its breakup (Turnstall 1986).
Prechel's (1986) study of a corporate cultural change in a large steel company yields
conclusions much like those drawn in this chapter: the emphasis on changing cultures can
be a transitional strategy of almost last resort for top managements in declining and
restructuring industries. As Ray (1986) suggests, the arena of culture may constitute the
last frontier of control for corporate top management.
The growing attention paid to management ideology and culture reflects a
greater preoccupation with reshaping the values of American management to make managers
willing ushers of corporate change. But in important ways these new management
philosophies obscure organizational changes that undermine rather than promote managers'
ability to act as agents of change.
The conflicts taking place in the seminars are significant insofar as
they reflect a lack of unity about the means and ends of the new corporate restructuring
agenda. But the seminar proceedings also fueled and heightened antistrategic politics.
Managers regularly expressed their skepticism about the aims of strategic management as
they were transmitted in the seminar. If anything, the seminar heightened their awareness
of the contradictions in the new orientation. Frank Cosgrove stated that top management
was charging middle managers with reducing the bank's personnel but was hiding this
mission behind depoliticized and optimistic language and "opaque" management. In
his opinion, strategic management was asking middle management to manage by Theory X under
the pretense that it was using Theory Y. In other words, managers were supposed to appear
enlightened (the Theory Y manager) yet act in a more coercive fashion (the Theory X
manager). One branch manager could find no better term for the
management philosophies, presented in the seminar and in the array of management
literature distributed throughout the bank, than "brainwashing."
The theorists of new management philosophies have presented an ideal
picture of nonhierarchical participatory corporate structures. They focus almost
exclusively on the drawbacks of bureaucracy and criticize managers for preserving
bureaucratic rigidity. They minimize or ignore, however, the degree to which bureaucratic
norms provide an important source of consent to objectives corporate America is under so
much pressure to achieve: such norms ensure rewards and regularize relations within the
workplace. Under conditions of organizational contraction, centralization, and the
elimination of monetary or mobility incentives, managers may view bureaucratic norms as
one of the few sources of their ability to manage. Managers' demand that certain rules be
left intact does not necessarily indicate organizational conservatism (although certainly
in some cases it may): rather, as American Security Bank's middle managers recognized,
their ability to secure consent and gain greater productivity levels depends to some
degree on regularized reward and feedback procedures.
The current focus on controlling managers through corporate culture and
ideological reform parallels attempts through the scientific management movement to
control lower-level production and clerical workers. Whereas scientific management
programs break down and colonize the physical movements of lower-level workers, corporate
culture agendas attempt to specify the precise content and meaning of middle managers'
Striving to control employees through cultural mechanisms, however, may
be limited in the same way that scientific management was limited in its applications to
lower levels of workers (Edwards 1979, pp. 97â“104). The theory of cultural
control frequently ignores such variables as the historical and organizational context of
the workplace, the complex and unequal relations between different strata of management,
and the relations between managers and those they manage. This theory also ignores the
fact that cultures emerge from the actual structures of organizations and work processes;
deliberate attempts to transform culture from the top down and at a purely symbolic level
may thus face serious obstacles (Ouchi and Wilkins 1985, p. 476). The vibrant
entrepreneurial cultures that the new management theorists wish to create may be most
typical in expanding, growth-based firms and may not be replicable in firms facing serious
Middle managers' responses to change at American Security can best be
explained by the particular organizational context in which they were to exercise the new
managerial agenda. Calling for entrepreneurialism, flexibility, and heightened use of
discretion, the new agenda simultaneously delimited what an entrepreneur was, how his or
her tasks should be executed, and the repercussions of failing to exercise discretion in a
way that served the corporation's purposes. In short, the platform of the new corporate
culture substituted coercive, individualized responsibility for the autonomy and
flexibility of the entrepreneur.
Furthermore, in the view of middle managers, strategic management's
definition of arbitrarily inflated productivity standards, opaque management, and
flexibility were inviable and potentially costly to the firm. Located at the intersection
between the global changes of the firm and the effects of these changes in the bank's
various work sites, managers predicted that the new methods would fail. The success of the
program depended on exploiting managers' individual legitimacy, but the program itself
undermined the legitimacy they needed to achieve corporate objectives.
Ralph, a manager, commented on the difficulties of acting like
entrepreneurs and innovators in a context that continually undermined legitimacy,
authority, and autonomous action. "We're encouraged to develop entrepreneurship;
we're given visions, values, and strategy. But they're unfocused in relation to what
managers have to do. When it conflicts with reality it's a problem." And insofar as
the seminars were the site of strategic management's attempts to produce new managerial
standards that contradicted the realities managers faced every day, the seminars became
the site of struggle over the very definition of entrepreneurial behavior and over the
terms by which managers were to extract greater effort from employees.