Monday, February 26, 2018

Business Is Not a War, a Jungle, a Machine, or a Game: Rejecting Narratives that are Unhealthy for Work and Workers

Earlier this month, an Australian colleague (Rae Cooper) tweeted that Tony Dundon’s AIRAANZ keynote presentation made the point that the “war for talent” narrative is macho and narcissistic, and undermines collaborative employment strategies. I agree. In fact, there are many war metaphors used in business: in addition to the “war for talent,” we can see references to competitors as the enemy, strategies as plans of attack, cash as a war chest, competition as a battle (“capture market share”), sometimes even employees as troops (“rally the troops”). All of these portray business as focused on beating the competition rather than producing an excellent product or service and make it legitimate to do this by any means necessary. War metaphors make it seem necessary for business to adopt hierarchical, authoritarian, military-like chains of command. All of these should be rejected. Business should be viewed as focused on  excellent products and services, not winning. Business requires cooperation, shared interests, and agreed-upon rules of conduct, not war.

But it’s not just war metaphors that are problematic. Here are some other popular metaphors used in business, all of which should be rejected and discarded:
  • “It’s a Jungle Out There”: Business is viewed as uncivilized, lacking rules, and dominated by a killer instinct. This survival of the fittest mentality justifies and even promotes selfish behavior. But to the contrary, and as noted requires cooperation, shared interests, and agreed-upon rules of conduct. Inside and outside of organizations, humans need to be members of communities, not atomistic, isolated individuals.
  • Machine Metaphors: Employees as cogs, corporations as machines, knowledge as input, rest periods as downtime. These narratives reduce workers to impersonal machines without needs, rights, and knowledge. These narratives also emphasize static efficiency rather than dynamic effectiveness. But to the contrary...organizations are human communities. Workers deserve more than being reduced to a machine, and effective management requires more than technical optimization and a soulless deployment of labor (oops, back to war metaphors). 
  • Game Metaphors: playing fields, players, coaches, and scorecards. This creates a focus on keeping score (money) and winning. This gives legitimacy to seeking thrills and challenges without regard for the public who are reduced to spectators. But to the is an integral part of society, not a sideshow for entertainment. Corporate “playing fields” are not isolated from society and business is not just about winning through profits.

Employment relations scholarship and practice has long sought to embrace a broader conception of business than simply making profits. Many of the major theories in business ethics similarly reveal and advocate for this broader conception. These theories also discount the popular emphasis on competition over cooperation as the driving force in business. Rather, it is emphasized that business is “a fully human activity” that requires a sense of community, extensive cooperation, and a deeper purpose than simply making money (as just one example, see Robert C. Solomon, Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business (Oxford University Press), which is also a good reference for the negatives of business metaphors). 

But note that the common metaphors described above (and by Solomon) capture very narrow views of business. The rhetorical power of these metaphors is illustrated by the negative practices that these metaphors support. In studying and practicing employment relations and human resources (and anything thing else related to business, including policy making), it’s important to break through these narrow metaphors. 

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