Saturday, December 3, 2016
Fleeing Babylon (Parts VI–VIII)
This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” This is the second of four segments.
There is a shortage of management professors in the ’80s, particularly LDS management professors. My one-year teaching contract somehow turns into nine years, some of them full time, some part time. After my first year, we move into the new Tanner Building, which our MBA valedictory speaker (none other than) Dan Willis christened “the box the Salt Lake Temple came in.” I have my own office, my own grader. I kind of like this. And the students seem to like my approach. Their evaluations are generous, although one or two tell me to go get a real job. By this, of course, they mean corporate job. In their worldview, a bank teller is a real job, but a college instructor is not. Whatever.
The business department gives me plenty of space. They are good people. They trust me in spite of the heretical views I develop and the anticorporate undercurrent I incorporate into my classes. In nine years, no administrator ever sets foot in my classroom to observe. It is a perfect job for me, for now. I teach four classes each semester, twelve hours. Counting preparation and grading, I work about twenty-five hours a week, and they do not expect me to do research or publish, so I have plenty of time to take English and German classes. I start work on a master’s degree in German. I will never finish it, but being back in the humanities somehow soothes my conscience.
August 1983. I am sitting in the Marriott Center. Hugh Nibley is delivering the commencement address. It is quite unlike anything I have ever heard.
“What took place in the Greco-Roman as in the Christian world was that fatal shift from leadership to management that marks the decline and fall of civilization. . . . The Generalstab [general staff] tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German army, but it never worked, because the men who delighted their superiors, i.e., the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, i.e., the leaders, got reprimands. Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.”1
In the summer of 1984, after my second year of teaching, I finally get married. I am twenty-eight. It’s not easy planning for the future when you’re on a perpetual one-year contract that is supposed to end every year but doesn’t.
About this time, a colleague at the Marriott School says to me, “You ought to read Kirk Hart’s book.” I have heard of Kirk but never met him. He teaches ethics and has an office upstairs on the seventh floor. I borrow Organizational America from a bookshelf in the conference room. In the middle of chapter 3, I have a revelation.
Kirk and his coauthor, Bill Scott, have identified a fundamental principle embraced by almost every organization. They call it the organizational imperative. “The [organizational] imperative is based upon a primary proposition which is absolute: whatever is good for the individual can only come from the modern organization. . . . Therefore, all behavior must enhance the health of such organizations.”2 This is a rather verbose way of saying the end justifies the means. Consequently, the organizational imperative produces a unique organizational morality that supersedes and replaces our traditional notions of morality. The organizational imperative also produces an inversion of priorities. Under its watchful care, organizations are assumed to be more important than individuals. Individuals exist to serve the needs of the organization, not the other way around.
This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation. In fact, many people in today’s world, or even in the Church, would hardly blink at such a notion: modern society is so thoroughly saturated with the propaganda and logic of megacorporations and their “needs” that we hardly question this logic anymore. But when organizations become more important than people, the whole world turns upside-down and suddenly people are at the mercy of things. They become, to use the awful modern metaphor, human resources. And what is a resource? Something that is used to produce something else. And when it is eventually used up, it gets thrown away.
Quite suddenly, the unnamed pressure I combated in the MBA program has a name: the organizational imperative. And it has a face. I can see it everywhere. Everywhere. It has consumed almost all of modern life.
Historian and social critic Christopher Lasch could see it. He described it in his own terms: “The market notoriously tends to universalize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.”3
Kirk and Bill not only give the unnamed pressure a name, they also unmask its methods by identifying two opposing sets of values. The first set, which they called the values of the “individual imperative,” are ideas we Americans learn at our mother’s knee. These values feel natural and comfortable because they reflect the beliefs and assumptions we have embraced as citizens of a free country. They are also in harmony with a basic gospel understanding of our purpose here in mortality and of human agency. They reflect the idea that the individual is the focal point and is not only more important than any organization but is the reason for the organization’s existence in the first place. Kirk and Bill identified six values associated with this concept of the individual.4 They are (with my abbreviated explanations):
1. Innate human nature. Each individual has a distinct personality and potential that cannot simply be changed to suit someone else’s preferences or needs.
2. Individuality. Each human being is unique and has individual talents, strengths, weaknesses, and worth.
3. Indispensability. Because each individual is unique, one can’t simply replace another, like a part in a machine.
4. Community. A group of individuals who blend their unique talents and personalities to accomplish good and are enhanced (but not homogenized) by the variety that exists within the community.
5. Spontaneity. Unplanned, creative action. The exercise of free will in doing what feels right.
6. Voluntarism. The key to community life. The glue that holds individuals together in collective endeavor. A willing compromise between individuality and cooperative effort.
In direct opposition to these six individual values are six organizational values.5 Kirk and Bill explain that these values do not come naturally to people. Indeed, they generally strike individuals as awkward and intrusive. People acquire them instead in organizational settings, and when they first encounter these values, they usually experience varying degrees of inner turmoil and antipathy. The six organizational values (again with my explanations) are:
1. Malleability. Human nature is essentially neutral. Therefore, people can and should be molded into whatever the organization needs them to be.
2. Obedience. This term is not synonymous with religious obedience (obedience directed toward God or eternal law). It is more a compliance with arbitrary organizational authority.
3. Dispensability. People are like replaceable parts in a machine.
4. Specialization. Organizations need people who relate in functional ways (rather than through community friendships).
5. Planning. Spontaneity is dangerous to organizations because administrators need to be able to control programs and outcomes. Predictability is essential.
6. Paternalism. From the Latin word for “father,” paternalism establishes arbitrary rules and regulations. Hence, managers tend to treat their employees as irresponsible, immature children who don’t deserve any input and cannot be trusted with proprietary information or decision-making privileges. Employees are told what to do and are expected to conform.
It should be noted that not all of the organizational values are blatantly evil. To one degree or another, they may be necessary to enable the organization to serve its purpose. But when the corporate values dominate and the individual values are in retreat, the organization becomes a burden rather than a blessing to the people in and around it. Some of the corporate values, however, such as paternalism and malleability, are almost always undesirable.
I can’t help but notice that the curriculum I teach, all the mathematical models from production planning to inventory control, float on the surface of a pool as deep and dark as Lake Baikal. That pool is filled with organizational values. I feel a bit hypocritical.
1. Hugh W. Nibley, “Leaders and Managers,” address delivered at commencement, August 19, 1983, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=578.
2. William G. Scott and David K. Hart, Organizational Values in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 30. This volume is a revision and reprinting of their original 1979 book, Organizational America.
3. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 97–98.
4. Scott and Hart, Organizational Values in America, 46–60.
5. Scott and Hart, Organizational Values in America, 46–60.