Management Lives: Power and Identity in Work Organizations


David Knights & Hugh Willmott

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    The mind is primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning.1

    This book has been long in its genesis. The original idea to write such a text occurred several years, and almost as many draft manuscripts, ago. It is the product of a teaching collaboration on a course that we have developed over many years.


    The idea for the book was prompted initially by our understanding of managing as an everyday activity that involves interactions between people–interactions that are not unrelated or entirely dissimilar to other spheres of life, except perhaps in the rhetoric and hype that surround management. Since most management textbooks do not make the connection between managing and everyday life, and indeed envelop the activity of management within an academic and professional mystique, we have been drawn to alternative sources (e.g. novels) that might enable students to relate accounts of management to their own experience.


    The title Management Lives! is intended to be ambiguous and a little controversial. It is concerned to illuminate the lives of people who, in different ways, are involved or affected by management. It includes those expressly identified as managers, but it extends to others who are managed, including the customers that are increasingly the targets of a competitive preoccupation with customer ‘care’ and service programmes. We refrain from treating management from the point of view of a set of theories and or a series of techniques that examine what are assumed to be effective yet diverse ways of managing (e.g. motivation, leadership, training, organizational structure). Instead, we seek to address managing as a vibrant, complex, challenging and even exciting human experience. Our approach is designed to counter the image of management as a branch of science or engineering, and to encourage an appreciation of managing as part and parcel of life and how it is lived.

    This approach accords with a more general recognition among teachers that education is best facilitated where students identify with, and are actively involved in, the learning process. In order to ‘make management live’, we explore the lives of those who are touched by it, using the concepts of power, inequality, identity and insecurity to guide and enrich our analysis. In our view, these key concepts are central for understanding so many facets of human life–from work to the family, from business to leisure, from reproduction to sexuality and from the sacred to the profane.

    Instead of organizing our course around established topics or focusing on the writings of authorities in management–such as Maslow, Fiedler or Mintzberg–we have encouraged our students to read more widely from a literature that would not conventionally be on a management syllabus. This has included the writings of Erich Fromm, Robert Pirsig and Harry Braverman, for example. We have also encouraged them to read a number of novels that offer a fictional exploration of central ideas in the course. A majority of students found the ideas explored in these texts more relevant to them personally and stimulating intellectually than the staple diet of management textbooks and associated readings. At the same time, they found a challenge in the invitation to read novels in a different, more reflexive and analytical way–as illustrative of ideas rather than just a good story. It could also be disturbing when, in contrast to management texts, students made connections between the ideas explored in the novels and their own lives and relationships. In sum, this book is less concerned with the specific and detailed, ‘technical’ functions of management, as described in most textbooks, than with the ways in which these technical activities affect the lives of managers. On the other hand, we are not concerned with the lives of management as a piece of voyeurism, as might be a journalist, so much as how the lives of managers, in the broadest sense, affect their work.

    Students told us that the novels we recommended made what we were seeking to communicate more accessible and meaningful. Otherwise rather abstract ideas that previously had been perceived to have relevance only for passing exams suddently came alive. The enthusiasm encouraged us to move further in this direction. Instead of simply providing an extensive list of novels that might be read by students as a supplement to more orthodox literature, we began integrating a small selection of these novels into the course. Gradually, they became primary rather than secondary reading and this book is a reflection of that evolutionary development in the course.


    Since we began to use novels in the mid-1980s, we have discovered that their use in teaching management students is not as unique as we first thought. Colleagues elsewhere have told us how they also use novels to illuminate particular ideas or to leaven otherwise technical treatments of aspects of management. However, we believe this book is the first to integrate the use of novels within a conceptual framework for analysing the lived experience of management.

    This highlights the limitations of, and offers an innovative alternative to, the use of textbooks for teaching students of management. Based on our experience of teaching final-year undergraduates who were consistently attracted to the course in above-average numbers, this book is perhaps even more relevant to postgraduate and MBA students who have completed a first degree and may have had some industrial experience. In order to champion a different approach, we have adopted a deliberately polemical tone and approach. We anticipate that this book will be used by a growing number of management academics that are critical of the conventional content of textbooks and experimental in their approach to pedagogic methods. Exceptionally, it may be adopted as an alternative to established textbooks. But we are not quite so arrogant as to deny the value of a good textbook in providing an introductory guide to a particular field of knowledge. More usually, this book will complement the continuing use of one or more textbooks to provide a different or fresh perspective. Encouraging students to read and debate both kinds of text can, we believe, facilitate the development of a more critical, questioning approach to the study of management.


    In the preparation of this book we have been most indebted to our students who have helped shape its development and, in particular, those who taught on the course at different times. These are too many to mention but include: Frank Daniel, Jeff Simm, David Collinson, Deborah Kerfoot, John Roberts, Mike Shaoul, James Smith, Frank Worthington, Edward Wray-Bliss and Jo Brewis. This book is dedicated to them. We are also very grateful to Chris Grey, who taught on the course for a number of years and who has read and commented in detail on earlier drafts of the chapters. Irene Field and Philip Wooley also kindly commented on earlier draft chapters. We thank Sue Jones who originally encouraged us to undertake this project and Rosemary Nixon who has been patiently supportive in getting us to complete it. Finally, thanks go to Helen Dean, Mary O'Brien and Helen Ireson for their patience in retyping endless versions of the manuscript.


    1 Huxley, A. (1959) The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 19.

  • Appendix A Synopses of Novels

    Nice Work

    This novel explores the different worlds of work experienced by a middle-aged male managing director of a foundry and an attractive, young female academic, who are brought together through a joint industry-university shadow scheme, instigated by the UK government. Vic, a squat, terrier-like man, is an unwilling participant in the shadow scheme, having had it imposed on him by his immediate boss in Midland Amalgamated. Robyn is a specialist in an esoteric (poststructuralist) form of analysis in the English department of the university. She is on a short-term contract and has reluctantly agreed to participate in the shadow scheme in the hope that it will help her to secure the renewal of her contract. So, in different ways, Vic and Robyn are each beholden to those on a higher rung of their respective organizational hierarchies.

    The novel compares and contrasts the financial pressures within the private and public sectors during 1980s Britain. At the foundry, Vic has been recently appointed to return it to profit. Against this background, the novel provides deep insights into management and the organization of work in both the factory and the university. In an effort to beat the competition, Vic is set the challenge of weeding out slow workers and reducing the product range. In doing so, he also seeks to train his staff to become more commercial in their outlook and, where funds allow, to substitute capital for labour. For Vic, the imperative is simple–make a standard, quality product at a price for which there is a demand–but achieving this objective is highly stressful. Despite his strong track record and seemingly assured manner, he worries privately about all the elements that can frustrate its realization and wonders, in the small hours, whether life has more to offer.

    These doubts grow as Robyn opens his senses to other interests, both sensual and cerebral. Under her influence, he makes changes in the factory, such as insisting on the removal of soft porn pin-ups from the factory floor, which are eventually used to justify his dismissal when the foundry is sold. Similarly, Vic tests Robyn's unexamined faith in the importance of her academic work. Her passion for post structuralist analysis, her politically correct feminism and her professional views about university work come under intense scrutiny as Vic ‘naively’ questions their value and sense.

    It is through this mutual exploration of each other's worlds that they become emotionally closer to each other than to their respective partners. Though he lives with his family and sleeps with his wife, Vic's marriage is dead and he has become estranged from his children. Robyn's partner Charles is also an English academic, but elects to leave academia for a job with better pay and prospects in the City. In contrast to Charles, Vic does not view Robyn as a rival. He is also highly attentive to her sexuality. Vic, whose inexperience of women leads him to bully and patronize her initially, repulses Robyn. When he takes her on a factory visit, Vic's treatment of his staff and the narrowness of his interests appall her. Yet, as they get to know each other, frequently crossing swords over values and principles, Robyn grows to admire Vic's gritty determination and his genuine, though highly sceptical, willingness to appreciate her world. Gradually, she finds herself attracted by his raw energy, his directness and also by his innocence. Even though Vic expresses his desire for her in terms that are incoherent from her poststructuralist perspective and politically incorrect from her feminist standpoint, Robyn finds this flattering which, on reflection, she finds amusing but disconcerting.

    Through these two main characters, Lodge is thus able to highlight and challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying their respective professional ideologies and the institutions in which they work. Vic envies Robyn's freedom to pursue her academic interests–‘nice work if you can get it’, he says. Robyn, on the other hand, envies the obvious value of Vic's work in producing goods that people want and keeping people in work–unlike her esoteric interests, for which ‘ninety-nine point nine percent of the population couldn't give a monkey's’.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being

    Tomas, the hero of Kundera's novel, is a hospital surgeon who lives in Prague in the late 1960s. This was a turbulent period in Czechoslovakia when the Soviet army intervened directly to suppress the liberal uprising against communism headed by Alexander Dubcek. However, Tomas is too preoccupied with his work and a seemingly insatiable desire for promiscuous sex to become involved, except inadvertently, in the struggle against Soviet domination. Tomas is largely estranged from family and community. Divorced seven years ago, and choosing never to see his son again because of the difficulties of transforming court access into an everyday practical reality, Tomas has also been disowned by his parents:

    In practically no time [Tomas] managed to rid himself of wife, son, mother, and father. The only thing they bequeathed to him was a fear of women. Tomas desired but feared them. Needing to create a compromise between fear and desire, he devised what he called ‘erotic friendship’.

    Tomas's fear of the power of women (e.g. a mother's power to deny love to her child) leads him to favour relations with women in which there are no mutual obligations other than the requirement to fulfil the desire for sexual pleasure. However, a series of coincidences leads Tomas to find himself in a relationship where expectations and obligations extend beyond the bounds of ‘erotic friendship’ as, despite himself, he becomes drawn into a romantic friendship whose outcome is marriage. However, his compulsive desire for ‘erotic friendship’ remains. There is then a fundamental conflict between the ‘lightness’ of (adulterous) promiscuity and the ‘weight’ of marital obligations. This, and much else in the novel, suggests that Tomas is trapped in a life of sexual conquests; a life that temporarily makes him feel ‘free’ from the demands of emotional commitment, the weight of responsibility of marriage and the unending duties of the professional.

    At first, Tomas rationalizes his infidelities to his wife, Teresa, by telling himself that sex and love need not be synonymous–the implication being that his promiscuity in no way diminishes his love for Teresa. Later, he develops a more sophisticated explanation, or rationalization. The uniqueness of each person, he contends, is accessible only through knowledge of their most intimate expressions where social conventions are momentarily suspended. Tomas understands and justifies sexual intercourse as a search for the unique ‘I’, that one-millionth ‘part dissimilarity’ which ‘only in sexuality … becomes precious because not accessible in public’. It is the small part in another human being that is unimaginable–‘that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered’ (our emphasis).

    While much of Tomas's life is absorbed with fulfilling his sexual desires, as is the case with at least two of the other main characters in the novel, Sabina and Franz, there is a section where moral indignation and political authenticity play a central part. Tomas finds himself under suspicion by the secret police for subversive activity. Rather than cooperate with them and save his professional position as a surgeon with ‘good’ career prospects, Tomas resigns to take on a job as a window cleaner. This provided him with even greater opportunities for illicit sex with those of his customers who were married women staying at home while their husbands were at work. Kundera draws out the sharp contrast between the deep moral integrity of Tomas's refusal to be complicit with the secret police and his continuous adultery. This and much else in the novel provides us with ideal material to discuss issues of identity and insecurity in Chapter 3.

    The Remains of the Day

    Especially in its Merchant and Ivory film version, The Remains of the Day can be seen primarily as a story of romance never consummated. However, the historical, political and social terrain on which the story unfolds contains many insights into issues that are central to our interests in this book. The novel records the historical reminiscences in 1956 of Stevens, who has spent the best part of his life as head butler to Lord Darlington. Stevens narrates the story in the first person as he takes a motoring trip some time after Darlington's death. Rationalized as a well-deserved holiday, the ostensible purpose of Stevens's journey to the West Country was to see whether it might be possible to persuade Miss Kenton to return to Darlington Hall where she had been a housemaid in the 1930s. While this concern to re-employ Miss Kenton could be, and was, justified to his new American master at Darlington Hall on the grounds of a depleted staff, a more fundamental motive for Stevens was to repair a part of his past.

    Stevens had several regrets in his life as he reached his twilight years or what might be seen as the ‘remains of the day’. One was his sheer devotion and unquestioning loyalty to his master Lord Darlington, who had been vulnerable and naive in accepting much Nazi propaganda and had used his influence in political circles to persuade the British to appease Germany in the interwar years. While regretting his minor part in this unfolding of political events, perhaps Stevens's greatest regret was more personal, in that he had failed to recognize and, more to the point, to reciprocate Miss Kenton's feelings towards him when they had worked together 20 years previously. Both regrets had come about because of a devotion to duty and the insistence that he led by example in refusing to allow personal matters to intervene in the conduct of service work. At the time, of course, he believed that his sacrifice was justified because he was serving a master who was engaged in such noble causes as the affairs of state about which he could not possibly have an understanding. In the event of his master having made the grossest errors of judgement in supporting a fascist Germany, the justification for a life of personal sacrifice no longer existed.

    The novel illustrates in graphic detail not only how this domination of work over life can smother the tiniest shoots of human sensuality, but also how the legacy of an aristocratic tradition continued to play an intricate part in British politics long after the rise of democracy. It depicts in great detail the dedicated professionalism of Stevens to a life of service, against the rank amateurism of the aristocratic tradition that continues to seek its influence on world affairs and, in this particular case, at some cost in appeasing fascist leaders in Germany. The insights of the novel into the British aristocracy and the hierarchical relations of status distinction and deference that prevail both between and within the master and servant class are invaluable for our study of power and inequality in Chapter 4.

    The Bonfire of the Vanities

    Set in 1980s New York, this novel explores the fast-living, quick-money, dog-eat-dog world of city slickers, petty criminals, big-time hustlers and a crumbling infrastructure that struggles to stem the tide of decadence and corruption. Published just before the Wall Street crash of 1987, it charts the rise and fall of Sherman McCoy, from highly paid bond salesman living in a lavishly furnished apartment on Park Avenue to ‘professional defendant’ accused of a hit-and-run, racist killing.

    Sherman comes from a modest background but is determined to prove himself–to become a Master of the Universe. He marries well, but he also wants, and feels he deserves, a mistress ‘to allow his rogue hormones out for a romp’. Married to an aged Jewish millionaire, who had made his second fortune flying Arabs to Mecca, his mistress Maria is street-wise. It is she who uses and manipulates Sherman, preying on his insecurity and vanity. When collecting her from the airport, Sherman takes a wrong turn off the freeway and winds up in the Bronx, a black ghetto. Driving his Mercedes through its unfamiliar darkened streets, both he and Maria feel intensely threatened. Seeking a way back on to the freeway, they find themselves blocked by an obstruction. Getting out to remove it, Sherman is approached by two black youths who ask him if he needs help. He panics and runs back to the car. Maria takes the wheel and hits one of the youths as they race away.

    Police detectives Martin and Goldberg trace the car to Sherman. A dead-beat journalist, eager to revive a flagging career, is given the story. He is happy to sensationalize the incident as a racist attack on a harmless, lawabiding black youth with a promising academic career ahead of him. Black activists capitalize on the story for their own propaganda purposes, as does the district attorney, Weiss, a man with political ambitions. Sherman becomes a political football as this is turned into a racist issue that is intended to mobilize the black vote. When the news breaks, Sherman fails to close a big financial deal as he loses his nerve and his concentration. The other youth at the scene of the accident, a hood, identifies Sherman as the driver in order to avoid having to explain away why Sherman had stopped at the barricade with the result that Maria had taken the wheel. When Sherman tells his employer about his position, he is immediately fired in order to protect the name of the firm. The Master of the Universe is shown to be instantly dispensable.

    Not only does Sherman lose his job and his family, but his becomes a ‘show trial’, with orchestrated mass demonstrations outside his apartment. Despite hiring the best lawyer (Killian), Sherman is powerless to stop a campaign that portrays him as the white hit-and-run driver. An attempt to confirm Maria's involvement by taping a meeting with her ends in farce and humiliation when she discovers the bug. But an illegal recording made by the landlord of an apartment rented by Maria, which includes a conversation in which she reveals her involvement, is presented to the court as if Sherman taped it. The prosecution lawyers, Kramer and Fitzgibbon, are flabbergasted by this evidence and the case is adjourned by the judge.

    The Bonfire of the Vanities provides dramatic and highly humorous material to illustrate our views about power and inequality in Chapter 4 and our broader concerns in Chapter 5.

    Appendix B The Conceptual Framework

    The theoretical framework for analysing management and organization in this book has been informed by four major concepts: identity, insecurity, power and inequality. In our view, the ideas expressed in our use of these concepts offer a means of making sense of the complexity of social relations without involving excessive simplification on the one hand, or student disorientation because of obscure and esoteric language on the other.

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