Managerialism: A hard look at ourselves

- Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders a

Virtually all of our colleagues in mission-driven organizations understand the concept of an         “-ism.”  We think of this concept in terms of social identity or social constructions, like racism, sexism and ageism. We understand “-isms” to be about dynamics of social power and privilege, the systematic ways some end up with access to more while others struggle with less. Many mission-driven organizations put these dynamics at the center of their work, directly or indirectly shaping their mission around the belief in social change that mitigates the “-isms.”

Few of us have considered a quieter “-ism,” what critical management scholars have dubbed “managerialism.”  Like other dynamics associated with some having more and some having less, managerialism rests in often unexamined assumptions.  The assumptions of managerialism include a belief that power inequality and coercion (that is, the ability to simply require someone to do something they may not want to do, because you want them to do it) are necessary in order for organizations to function well [1]. Another managerialist assumption is that people who become managers are better suited to make decisions for the organization than are other workers, just by dint of their position [2].   

Managerialism is defined by the assumptions and behaviors of managers, not by the nature of organizational structure. Hierarchal structures, for example, are not by definition managerialist. Still, in our work with mission-driven organizations espousing shared or collaborative operating principles, we have seen cases of unexamined managerialism.  Those assumptions and attending behaviors produce resistance and divisiveness, actually  undermining the organizational effectiveness and productivity management is supposed to assure. 

As is the case with other “-isms,” managerialism, some scholars argue, has become a kind of orthodoxy largely unquestioned by people in management positions, and even many of those whose work they manage [3].  With any “-ism,”  those who have relatively more, and who care about social justice, struggle with the notion that their assumptions could be causing harm.   Like individuals who struggle with the other "isms", managers inclined toward social justice need to struggle with their managerialism, to confront and examine the assumptions that undergird their privilege as managers.

What would happen if leaders and managers of mission-driven organizations took on that struggle, really questioned managerialist assumptions, and considered a different approach to creating effective organizations?

Many business, nonprofit and education leaders are answering this question with a strong message that organizations would be stronger, and the people in them and communities affected by them would be better off.

In his new book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux offers compelling stories from a number of organizations shifting away from traditional management, offering the possibility that a new era of management offers a “radically more productive organizational model.”

In a review of Laloux’s book, Ryan Honeyman[4] wonders if organizations moving beyond managerialist assumptions could create what he calls “unprecedented impact” relative to their missions, and on the world at large.   Commenters on his post include business leaders excited by a shift away from traditional management practices. 

It’s a shift worth paying attention to, and the struggle with managerialist assumptions that could keep that shift from happening is a struggle worth having.



[1] Barros, M. (2010). Emancipatory management: The contradiction between practice and discourse. Journal of management inquiry, 19(2), 166-184.

[2] Locke, RR. and Spender, J.C. (2011) Confronting managerialism. How the business elite and their schools threw our lives out of balance. Zed Books: London.

[3] Scott, W. G. (1985). Organizational revolution: An end to managerial orthodoxy. Administration & society, 17(2), 149-170

[4] Ryan Honeyman is author of The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, October 2014).