I believe many of us have the feeling that we are living in times characterized by turmoil. We are living through COVID. We feel the first outliers of impacts of global warming. There is a looming biodiversity collapse and and and and and ,… It is easy to get into a gloom-and-doom mode.
However, at the same time it seems as if there are also very, very big moves towards reTHINKING the very principles of management, managing, ethically, responsibly, and sustainably. But is it something that we are actually DOING in our daily jobs, when we are working ourselves? Is this something our students will be doing once they start working?
I don’t think so. While we should be rocking the boat, what we are really doing is very busily rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is not radical or drastic enough. My somewhat idealistic hope, therefore, is to incite some subversively responsible management practices.
Mind the Mundane Practices of Management!
You might find it somewhat surprising that I suggest we focus on practices. Practices are mundane, aren’t they? We are doing them on a daily basis and we don’t even think about them anymore.
Let’s consider a historic practice. Without the practice of factory production, we wouldn’t live our convenient middle-class lives. We would neither have comfortable wages nor affordable products. Conversely, we wouldn’t have most of the environmental problems that threaten to wipe us off the planet either. There would be no global income inequality in the way we experience it now.
Let’s also think about a more recent example. The practice of subprime lending pre-2007 had been unquestioned and normal for a long time. Then, apparently out of the blue, it causes a crisis that turns the social and economic fabric of the world upside down.
So, we have to mind the management practices that make and potentially break our world even if, and especially if they seem so mundane and ‘normal.’
Watch out for the Positively Subversive Practices!
If we want to rock the boat, we have to foster positively disruptive management practices. Here are four brief examples:
First, think about a practice like that of Open Hiring at Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, close to New York City. Open Hiring contradicts the ‘normal’ strategic hiring paradigm: Get the best people, screen them, and out of 100 pick the one who is the most valuable for your company. No, at Greyston they hire anybody who walks through the door. They don’t look at any CVs, nor do they do background checks. They don’t hire people to bake brownies, but instead bake brownies in order to hire people who urgently need a job.
Next, think about management at Yash Pakka. They practice a radical version of ‘flat’ employee self-management in an Indian society that is characterized by societal hierarchies frequently attributed to the caste system.
Then, think about the company Good-Ark in Suzhou, China, which centers its business model and much of their daily activities on humanistic development of their employees. Imagine how paying this level of attention to the spiritual and human well-being of your people contradicts the normal human ‘resources’ paradigm in.
Finally, think about the example of Allsafe in southern Germany close to Lake Constance. Allsafe, an automotive and aerospace manufacturing company, practices ‘eye level management,’ meaning that they have largely abandoned control systems, and instead give employees freedom. They trust that employees in turn will act responsibly. Imagine about how such practices challenge the dominant paradigm in an industry where everything is about Six Sigma, not making mistakes, and not deviating from the norm.
Making Unrealistic Management Practices Real, One Classroom at a Time
If we want to see management to become a positive force for change towards sustainability, responsibility, and ethics, one thing that seems crucial. We have to incite, to make real this kind of subversively responsible management practices — even though, and especially because, they feel unreal(istic). There is a new normal, a new reality of management on the horizon, where what still seems unrealistic is likely to be(come) the new normal.
Our textbook, Principles of Management: Practicing Ethics, Responsibility, Sustainability (2nd ed.), while discussing all the ‘normal’ management frameworks and practices, moves such innovative management practices to the front and center. As a textbook for introductory management and business courses, Principles of Management has been written to co-construct this new normal, and to instigate such subversive practices, one classroom at a time.
Note: This text is an adapted version of a keynote speech Oliver Laasch originally delivered at Responsible Leadership after the crisis: 9th International Humboldt Conference on Sustainability and Responsibility 2020.