Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review—The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy

As far as employment went, I somewhat enjoyed financial analysis and accounting-related work.  But what drove me out of the business environment and into law school was the intellectually hollow corporate babble that seemed to invade most aspects of the job.  There was the constant talk of “driving the business,” the prodding to “think outside the box,” and even the brilliance of “management by walking around.”  (They seriously called it that, and management gurus made a fortune selling it to brain-dead business leaders.)  And of course, any employee who refused to place his faith in the latest management buzzwords and catchphrases, and instead questioned the underlying thinking, was not being “a team player.”  Fortunately, in response to all of this stupidity, Matthew Stewart has written what should be mandatory reading for everyone in the corporate world: The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy.

Stewart is an interesting chap, to say the least.  Having earned a Ph.D.—or rather a D.Phil., as they call it at Oxford—in nineteenth-century German philosophy, he is a self-described writer of “unpublishable philosophical novels” who happened to stumble into management consulting almost by accident.  It “was like one of those wrong turns that take you into a part of town you never knew existed,” he writes.  And part of what The Management Myth does is to explain today’s consulting industry and the clueless corporate-types that allow it to exist, much like a warm body allows a virus to exist.  As insightful as that is, however, my favorite part of the book is Stewart’s critical analysis of Elton Mayo, a perennial underachiever who came to America from Australia in 1922.  Soon after hitting our shores, Mayo duped Harvard Business School into giving him a position that “academics dream about when they dream of heaven: no real teaching responsibilities, and all the research assistants money can buy.”  Stewart hilariously describes the Mayo-Harvard union as follows:

In the interest of lending the program an air of clinical seriousness, Mayo allowed himself to be styled “Doctor Mayo.”  University authorities only later discovered, to their consternation, that this title . . . was a response to the needs of the situation rather than a factual representation of his educational credentials.  Mayo defended himself by saying that he often let the honorific slide because to have explained that he was not in fact a doctor would have “interrupted the flow of the conversation.” 

So what’s the harm of some guy wandering around an ivory tower pretending to be a doctor?  Normally, there would be none, but it turns out that some of Mayo’s university-supported “research” in the factory setting became wildly popular and gave rise to the management gurus who plague us today.  In short, Mayo was able to obtain huge productivity gains which he attributed to the mere act of paying attention to employees, or urging them to work as “a team,” or getting them to sacrifice “for the sake of the common good.”  This work, known as the “Hawthorne Experiments,” quite obviously serves as the basis for our modern version of corporate psycho-babble.  The problem, however, is that none of it was true.  In fact, because Mayo’s experiments were non-scientific and failed to control for any variables, the productivity gains were actually the result of other things that were going on at the same time, including replacing low-producing workers with workaholics, and, most significantly, linking the workers’ pay to their performance.  Despite the obvious impact that these things have on productivity gains, Mayo dismissed them, and instead “conjured a simulacrum of scientific theorizing out of an anecdote whose details were quietly altered wherever they failed to make the right point.”

When serious social scientists finally got hold of Mayo’s data, they described his work as “scientifically illiterate”; their criticism, however, came too late as Mayo’s pseudoscience had already taken hold.  Today, Mayo’s work has evolved to plague the modern, thinking corporate employee, and to provide fuel for the modern management guru and business consultant.  One such example is Tom Peters, a Stanford Ph.D., best-selling author, and go-to guru for big business, who bases much of his product on Mayo’s earlier work.  This, Stewart tells us, “is a helpful reminder that having a Ph.D. from Stanford is no guarantee that one will not harbor a thoroughly distorted view of the foundations of one’s own discipline.”

So, for all of you thinking corporate employees out there, get a copy of The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business PhilosophyIt provides a wonderful historical and critical perspective on modern management myths and, if you’re so inclined, can serve as a blueprint for becoming a gadfly at your company and a thorn in your manager’s side.

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