Philosophers and Managers: An Unlikely yet Serendipitous Meeting of Minds

Philosophers and managers reputedly live on different planets. The former are said to speculate and to contemplate, the latter to act and decide. The first ones do not know anything of organisations, even less of business, the second ones have no time for abstract ideas but are solely interested in obtaining results; most philosophers wrote in times long past but managers are exclusively interested in the here and now. Even their languages are supposedly different: while philosophers speak classic Greek or German, managers communicate in ‘managementese’, this impoverished version of English that has become the Esperanto of a globalised economy. As the cliché goes, their encounter is both unlikely and pointless.

The (Great) Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Clichés are often deceptive. Indeed, management scholars, even those who are unconcerned by business ethics, have long based their views on mainstream philosophical traditions. Management concepts and research methods are distant, indeed at times distorted and hardly recognisable, descendants of philosophical arguments. Genuine innovation in management literature is extremely rare, just as it has been in Western thought. Imitating in this their philosophical precursors, management authors isolate one thread and present it as the dominating pattern of the entire fabric. Like those of a tapestry though, intellectual threads are not meaningful by themselves, but acquire their significance when seen in the context of the overall drapery.

For example, when management scholars argue, alongside management guru Peter Drucker, that the ultimate test of management is the achievement of actual results, they follow a tradition that found its first expression in the epic poetry of Homer. When they hold that organisational effectiveness hinges on the perspective of the CEO and that success comes at a moral cost, they endorse the authority of Niccolò Machiavelli. When they believe that the fate of an organization rests on the shoulders of exceptional employees, they promote a Nietzschean ideal. What these authors have in common is a commitment to the heroic conception that (personal) might is right: management is effectiveness in action. In this outline, the one moral principle that managers must follow is that the group is worth more than its members, for these do not exist outside of it. Success is all that matters and it requires personal sacrifices.

Scholars who believe that rulership rests on a body of universal concepts that can be taught are indebted to Plato. Rulership is not a physical activity requiring skills, but an intellectual exercise demanding knowledge. Managers must be educated because might is not right. Rather, reason is right, because it is the way to truth. Management schools would not exist without such intertwined anti-heroic and rationalist preconceptions. Economics has understandably found a home in their curricula, for the discipline relies on a picture of human existence, articulated by René Descartes, in which individuals are rational, that is, able to elevate themselves above bodily instincts to the point where these can be ignored. Managers who believe that they are to deduce their actions from insights taken to be self-evident do not deviate from the Cartesian tradition. Those who hold that project management is essentially an exercise in task decomposition and subsequent synthesis do not do otherwise, since they follow the Cartesian method and confirm its validity.

Conversely, when management academics maintain that experience is the first datum of human existence, they walk in the footsteps of John Locke and David Hume. On the empiricist account, human beings are inscribed in nature. There is a small step from these premises to the view that the world is one of cause and effect and that it behaves according to laws and structures that are immutable and universal. Science follows an inductive-deductive method which codifies the phenomenalistic laws that rule the world. A question that cannot be formulated in scientific terms is not a true question; an answer that is not obtained through the methods of science is not a true answer. Organisations operate according to fixed causal patterns which management researchers are to discover, educators to teach and managers to apply. Indeed, as Francis Bacon taught, to know the cause is to be able to produce the effect.

‘There is nothing as practical as good philosophy.’

Some researchers and managers who reject the scientific outlook believe that the test of management is innovation. In their view, innovation demands passion and the will to shape one’s environment, rather than subjection to an allegedly immutable pre-existing order. Nature is not a great book to be read but, as the German Romantics insisted, a book to be written and the pen is moved by personal will. Enterprising managers create their markets, just as much as they make themselves.

Existential scholars and managers believe that individuals are free and responsible for their actions, insofar as they can foresee their consequences. Decision-making models, when used by managers to avoid personal responsibility, are thus little else than attempts to systematise what Sartre called ‘bad faith.’ Human existence is not reducible to biology, even less to the human genome. Rather than attempting to direct organisations and control their subordinates by way of scientific models, existential managers speak to them in terms of objectives, choices, freedom and responsibility. Employees are not puppets, or victims of internal and external forces: they have reasons for what they do. As Chester Barnard saw, when these reasons disappear, when the moral cost of compliance exceeds its benefits, one ceases to be an employee.

Finally, when management scholars believe that education is not emancipation for the greatest number, but a sophisticated form of social control by which elites maintain themselves and perpetuate oppression of the masses, they demonstrate postmodernism’s pervasive influence. In the postmodernist outline, there is no such a thing as truth or if there is, it is unobtainable. All is narrative, power games, evidence of sinister conspiracies. Nothing is certain, not even plain facts, for everything shifts endlessly. These quicksands open avenues to managers and marketing experts. Change is to be made perpetual because employees and consumers in search of references can be controlled by well-crafted storytelling, symbols and other pseudo-cultural artefacts. Management becomes manipulative surveillance and marketing is brainwashing. Anything goes because there is always someone who is convinced to believe it.

German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte insisted that whichever philosophy one adopts is one’s responsibility. He also believed that one’s preference betrays what kind of person one is. What matters is that one makes an enlightened choice, taking account of what it assumes about human existence, what it explains and what it makes possible. Once the choice is made and its consequences known, the contradictions listed above disappear. One accepts those management concepts which are compatible with one’s preferred philosophy and rejects the others as misguided. Although offering no direction of its own, philosophy is a potent prophylactic which clears the confused jungle of management thought.Without the insights of philosophy, students, academics and managers alike will remain the slaves of unrecognised blind spots, biases and contradictions. Yet, when confronted by philosophical perspectives, some managers complain of their inability to decide which of the Western worldviews is superior. This is not, however, a paralysing dilemma. As the existentialists emphasised, if one exists one acts and if one acts one chooses. To paraphrase Kurt Lewin’s celebrated saying, ‘There is nothing as practical as good philosophy.’ Management, then, is philosophy in action.

To read more go to The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought by Jean-Etienne Joullié and Robert Spillane