Intelligence at the Edge #10


A social anthropologist studies how managers manage.

David's smiling face

By David S. Isenberg                                                          amnetlogo

From America's Network, June 1, 1999

In times of tension at AT&T, my colleagues and I would joke that our jobs were 10% technical and 90% political. One day it dawned on me that it wasn’t a joke.

So I launched an effort to understand why I felt like such a maladapted fish in the invisible but omnipresent viscosity of corporate culture. Dilbert helped some, as did the stories of Gulliver, Alice in Wonderland and The Emperor’s New Clothes. But I suspected that there was a more systematic treatment. After years of reading fawning analyses and how-to management success stories that rimmed but did not penetrate, I finally found Moral Mazes.

Moral Mazes, a 1988 book by social anthropologist Robert Jackall (Oxford Press, New York), is written as if the observer had just parachuted into a Fijian island or the Stone-Age Lacandon jungle. But the bizarre, alien culture detailed here happens to be that of the big, modern, unreconstructed American corporation.

An anthropologist needs informants — high priests and warriors that can explain a culture’s ceremonies and shibboleths. But corporate culture is opaque and unfriendly to the outsider. Thirty-six corporations refused Jackall’s request to study them. From these unsuccessful negotiations, Jackall learned enough of an insider’s ways to gain admittance to three companies: a textile company, a chemical company and a public relations firm. He called them Weft, Alchemy and Images Inc.

Patrimonial Bureaucracy

Once inside, Jackall observes that formal corporate processes are but a ritual veneer over intensely personal ones. Reflecting this, managers typically identify their jobs by their boss. They say, "I work for Bill Jones," or "I’m in Jill Smith’s organization." To Jackall’s clinical eye, this phenomenon "exactly reflects the way authority is structured, exercised, and experienced."

Jackall calls corporate culture a "patrimonial bureaucracy." He points out that such personalization makes it more like a royal court than a classical rule-and-process-driven bureaucracy.

Jackall describes in detail how "management by objective" ties the patrimonial bureaucracy together. The anthropologist observes that "management by objective" is, in fact, quite subjective. The data indicate that a boss’s primary job is to make his or her organization look good to superiors.

Bosses use ambiguity to manipulate credit and blame, allocating blame downward and pulling credit up. "Pushing details down protects the privilege of authority to declare that a mistake has been made," Jackall says. A boss can’t do this if procedures are too explicit or well established. So bosses often leave important details unspecified. This creates more ambiguity, so personal relationships become even more important.

Personalization of authority extends from lowliest manager to CEO. At every level, Jackall observes, "the most common topic of conversation is… speculation about the CEO’s plans, intentions, strategies, actions, style, public image and ideological leanings of the moment," including who has the CEO’s ear and who’s out of favor.

Ignoring BAD NEWS

When there is good news, credit flows up — so the boss, personifying the organization, looks good to superiors. Then credit flows up again.

When there is bad news, it’s the boss’ prerogative to push blame onto subordinates to keep it from escalating. Bad news that can’t be contained can threaten a boss’s position; if bad news rises up, blame will come down. This is why they shoot messengers.

So it’s easier to ignore bad news. Thus, Jackall’s chemical company studiously ignored a $6 million maintenance item until it exploded (literally) into a $150 million disaster. "To make a decision ahead of [its] time risks political catastrophe," said one manager, justifying the deferred maintenance. Then, once the mess had been made, "The decision [to clean up] made itself," said another relieved manager.

I first read Moral Mazes in 1996, when I was part of AT&T’s Opportunity Discovery Department. At the time, we were discovering that the ways that telcos create value were becoming obsolete; bad news for AT&T, indeed. One night while reading, I had a vivid dream that my department colleagues and I were hanging on meat hooks in a cooler, like butchered cattle.

Moral Mazes is a difficult book for other reasons, too. It is written in a convoluted, academic style. But it casts a steely, objective, unapologetic eye on how corporate culture works, how decisions get made, how power flows, what it takes to get ahead and why Dilbert is so funny so often. The book is a decade old, but it hasn’t lost its edge. It is a must-read for all of us whose work gets bogged down in the labyrinthine politics of big, seemingly bureaucratic companies.

Copyright 1999 Advanstar Communications.