Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • The hierarchical authority structure that is the linchpin of bureaucracy dominates the way managers think about their world and about themselves. Managers do not see or experience authority in any abstract way; instead, authority is embodied in their personal relationships with their immediate bosses and in their perceptions of similar links between other managers up and down the hierarchy. When managers describe their work to an outsider, they almost always first say: “I work for [Bill James]” or “I report to [Harry Mills]” or “I’m in [Joe Bell’s] group,”*and only then proceed to describe their actual work functions. Such a personalized statement of authority relationships seems to contradict classical notions of how bureaucracies function but it exactly reflects the way authority is structured, exercised, and experienced in corporate hierarchies.

  • The commitments made to top management depend on the pyramid of stated objectives given to superiors up the line. At each level of the structure, there is typically “topside” pressure to achieve higher goals and, of course, the CEO frames and paces the whole process by applying pressure for attainment of his own objectives. Meanwhile, bosses and subordinates down the line engage in a series of intricate negotiations—managers often call these “conspiracies”—to keep their commitments respectable but achievable. This “management-by-objective” system, as it is usually called, creates a chain of commitments from the CEO down to the lowliest product manager or account executive. In practice, it also shapes a patrimonial authority arrangement that is crucial to defining both the immediate experiences and the long-run career chances of individual managers. In this world, a subordinate owes fealty principally to his immediate boss. This means that a subordinate must not overcommit his boss, lest his boss “get on the hook” for promises that cannot be kept. He must keep his boss from making mistakes, particularly public ones; he must keep his boss informed, lest his boss get “blindsided.” If one has a mistake-prone boss, there is, of course, always the temptation to let him make a fool of himself, but the wise subordinate knows that this carries two dangers—he himself may get done in by his boss’s errors, and, perhaps more important, other managers will view with the gravest suspicion a subordinate who withholds crucial information from his boss even if they think the boss is a nincompoop. A subordinate must also not circumvent his boss nor ever give the appearance of doing so. He must never contradict his boss’s judgment in public. To violate the last admonition is thought to constitute a kind of death wish in business, and one who does so should practice what one executive calls “flexibility drills,” an exercise “where you put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good-bye.” On a social level, even though an easy, breezy, first-name informality is the prevalent style of American business, a concession perhaps to our democratic heritage and egalitarian rhetoric, the subordinate must extend to the boss a certain ritual deference. For instance, he must follow the boss’s lead in conversation, must not speak out of turn at meetings, must laugh at his boss’s jokes while not making jokes of his own that upstage his boss, must not rib the boss for his foibles. The shrewd subordinate learns to efface himself, so that his boss’s face might shine more clearly. In short, the subordinate must symbolically reinforce at every turn his own subordination and his willing acceptance of the obligations of fealty. In return, he can hope for those perquisites that are in his boss’s gift—the better, more attractive secretaries, or the nudging of a movable panel to enlarge his office, and perhaps a couch to fill the added space, one of the real distinctions in corporate bureaucracies. He can hope to be elevated when and if the boss is elevated, though other important criteria intervene here. He can also expect protection for mistakes made, up to a point. However, that point is never exactly defined and depends on the complicated politics of each situation. The general rule is that bosses are expected to protect those in their bailiwicks. Not to do so, or to be unable to do so, is taken as a sign of untrustworthiness or weakness. If, however, subordinates make mistakes that are thought to be dumb, or especially if they violate fealty obligations— for example, going around their boss—then abandonment of them to the vagaries of organizational forces is quite acceptable.

  • Overlaying and intertwined with this formal monocratic system of authority, with its patrimonial resonance, are patron-client relationships. Patrons are usually powerful figures in the higher echelons of management. The patron might be a manager’s direct boss, or his boss’s boss, or someone several levels higher in the chain of command. In either case, the manager is still bound by the immediate, formal authority and fealty patterns of his position but he also acquires new, though more ambiguous, fealty relationships with his highest-ranking patron. Patrons play a crucial role in advancement, It is characteristic of this authority system that details are pushed down and credit is pulled up. Superiors do not like to give detailed instructions to subordinates. The official reason for this is to maximize subordinates’ autonomy. The underlying reason is, first, to get rid of tedious details. Most hierarchically organized occupations follow this pattern; one of the privileges of authority is the divestment of humdrum intricacies. This also insulates higher bosses from the peculiar pressures that accompany managerial work at the middle levels and below: the lack of economy over one’s time because of continual interruption from one’s subordinates, telephone calls from customers and clients, and necessary meetings with colleagues; the piecemeal fragmentation of issues both because of the discontinuity of events and because of the way subordinates filter news; and the difficulty of minding the store while sorting out sometimes unpleasant personnel issues. Perhaps more important, pushing details down protects the privilege of authority to declare that a mistake has been made. A high-level executive in Alchemy Inc. explains: If I tell someone what to do—like do A, B, or C—the inference and implication is that he will succeed in accomplishing the objective. Now, if he doesn’t succeed, that means that I have invested part of myself in his work and I lose any right I have to chew his ass out if he doesn’t succeed. If I tell you what to do, I can’t bawl you out if things don’t work. And this is why a lot of bosses don’t give explicit directions. They just give a statement of objectives, and then they can criticize subordinates who fail to make their goals. Moreover, pushing down details relieves superiors of the burden of too much knowledge, particularly guilty knowledge. A superior will say to a subordinate, for instance: “Give me your best thinking on the problem with [X].” When the subordinate makes his report, he is often told: “I think you can do better than that,” until the subordinate has worked out all the details of the boss’s predetermined solution, without the boss being specifically aware of “all the eggs that have to be broken.” It is also not at all uncommon for very bald and extremely general edicts to emerge from on high. For example, “Sell the plant in [St. Louis]; let me know when you’ve struck a deal,” or “We need to get higher prices for [fabric X]; see what you can work out,” or “Tom, I want you to go down there and meet with those guys and make a deal and I don’t want you to come back until you’ve got one.” This pushing down of details has important consequences. First, because they are unfamiliar with—indeed deliberately distance themselves from—entangling details, corporate higher echelons tend to expect successful results without messy complications. This is central to top executives’ well-known aversion to bad news and to the resulting tendency to kill the messenger who bears the news. Second, the pushing down of details creates great pressure on middle managers not only to transmit good news but, precisely because they know the details, to act to protect their corporations, their bosses, and themselves in the process. They become the “point men” of a given strategy and the potential “fall guys” when things go wrong. From an organizational standpoint, overly conscientious managers are particularly useful at the middle levels of the structure. Upwardly mobile men and women, especially those from working-class origins who find themselves in higher status milieux, seem to have the requisite level of anxiety, and perhaps tightly controlled anger and hostility, that fuels an obsession with detail. Of course, such conscientiousness is not necessarily, and is certainly not systematically, rewarded; the real organizational premiums are placed on other, more flexible, behavior.

  • Credit flows up in this structure and is usually appropriated by the highest-ranking officer involved in a successful decision or resolution of a problem. There is, for instance, a tremendous competition for ideas in the corporate world; authority provides a license to steal ideas, even in front of those who originated them. Chairmen routinely appropriate the useful suggestions made by members of their committees or task forces; research directors build their reputations for scientific wizardry on the bricks laid down by junior researchers and directors of departments. Presidents of whole divisions as well are always on the lookout for “fresh ideas” and “creative approaches” that they can claim as their own in order to put themselves “out in front” of their peers. A subordinate whose ideas are appropriated is expected to be a good sport about the matter; not to balk at so being used is one attribute of the good team player. The person who appropriates credit redistributes it as he chooses, bound essentially and only by a sensitivity to public perceptions of his fairness. One gives credit, therefore, not necessarily where it is due, although one always invokes this old saw, but where prudence dictates. Customarily, people who had nothing to do with the success of a project can be allocated credit for their exemplary efforts. At the middle levels, therefore, credit for a particular idea or success is always a type of refracted social honor; one cannot claim credit even if it is earned. Credit has to be given, and acceptance of the gift implicitly involves a reaffirmation and strengthening of fealty. A superior may share some credit with subordinates in order to deepen fealty relationships and induce greater efforts on his behalf. Of course, a different system obtains in the allocation of blame.

  • It is far more important to please the king today than to worry about the future economic state of one’s fief, since, if one does not please the king, there may not be a fief to worry about or indeed vassals to do the worrying.  
  • Speculation about the CEO and his leanings of the moment is more than idle gossip, and the courtlike atmosphere that I am describing more than stylized diversion. Because he stands at the apex of the corporation’s bureaucratic and patrimonial structures and locks the intricate system of commitments between bosses and subordinates into place, it is the CEO who ultimately decides whether those commitments have been satisfactorily met. The CEO becomes the actual and the symbolic keystone of the hierarchy that constitutes the defining point of the managerial experience. Moreover, the CEO and his trusted associates determine the fate of whole business areas of a corporation.

  • Within the general ambiance established by a CEO, presidents of individual operating companies or of divisions carry similar, though correspondingly reduced, influence within their own baronies. Adroit and well-placed subordinates can, for instance, borrow a president’s prestige and power to exert great leverage. Even chance encounters or the occasional meeting or lunch with the president can, if advertised casually and subtly, cause notice and the respect among other managers that comes from uncertainty. Knowledge of more clearly established relationships, of course, always sways behavior.  Managers draw elaborate cognitive maps to guide them through the thickets of their organizations. Because they see and experience authority in such personal terms, the singular feature of these maps is their biographical emphasis. Managers carry around in their heads thumbnail sketches of the occupational history of virtually every other manager of their own rank or higher in their particular organization. These maps begin with a knowledge of others’ occupational expertise and specific work experience, but focus especially on previous and present reporting relationships, patronage relationships, and alliances. Cognitive maps incorporate memories of social slights, of public embarrassments, of battles won and lost, and of people’s behavior under pressure. They include as well general estimates of the abilities and career trajectories of their colleagues. I should mention that these latter estimates are not necessarily accurate or fair; they are, in fact, often based on the flimsiest of evidence.

  • Managers trade estimates of others’ chances within their circles and often color them to suit their own purposes. This is one reason why it is crucial for the aspiring young manager to project the right image to the right people who can influence others’ sketches of him. Whatever the accuracy of these vocabularies of description, managers’ penchant for biographical detail and personal histories contrasts sharply with their disinclination for details in general or for other kinds of history. Details, as I have mentioned, get pushed down the ladder; and a concern with history, even of the short-run, let alone long-term, structural shifts in one’s own organization, constrains the forward orientation and cheerful optimism highly valued in most corporations. Biographical detail, however, constitutes crucial knowledge because managers know that, in the rough-and-tumble politics of the corporate world, individual fates are made and broken not necessarily by one’s accomplishments but by other people.

  • In 1979, a new CEO took power in Covenant Corporation. The first action of most new CEOs is some form of organizational change. On the one hand, this prevents the inheritance of blame for past mistakes; on the other, it projects an image of bare-knuckled aggressiveness much appreciated on Wall Street. Perhaps most important, a shake-up rearranges the fealty structure of the corporation, placing in power those barons whose style and public image mesh closely with that of the new CEO and whose principal loyalties belong to him. Shortly after the new CEO of Covenant was named, he reorganized the whole business, after a major management consulting firm had “exhaustively considered all the options,” and personally selected new presidents to head each of the five newly formed companies of the corporation—Alchemy, Energy, Metals, Electronics, and Instruments. He ordered the presidents to carry out a thorough reorganization of their separate companies complete with extensive “census reduction,” or firing as many people as possible. The presidents were given, it was said, a free hand in their efforts, although in retrospect it seems that the CEO insisted on certain high-level appointments. The new president of Alchemy Inc.—let’s call him Smith*—had risen from a marketing background in a small but important specialty. Up and down the chemical company, former associates of Smith were placed in virtually every important position. Managers in the company saw all of this as an inevitable fact of life. In their view, Smith simply picked those managers with whom he was comfortable. The whole reorganization could easily have gone in a completely different direction had another CEO been named, or had the one selected picked someone besides Smith, or had Smith come from a different work group in the old organization. Fealty is the mortar of the corporate hierarchy, but the removal of one well-placed stone loosens the mortar throughout the pyramid. And no one is ever quite sure, until after the fact, just how the pyramid will be put back together. The year after the “big purge,” Alchemy prospered and met its financial commitments to the CEO, the crucial coin of the realm to purchase continued autonomy. Smith consolidated his power and, through the circle of the mostly like-minded and like-mannered men and women with whom he surrounded himself, further weeded out or undercut managers with whom he felt uncomfortable. At the end of the year, the mood in the company was buoyant not only because of high profits but because of the expectation of massive deregulation and boom times for business following President Reagan’s first election. On the day after the election, by the way, managers, in an unusual break with normal decorum, actually danced in the corridors. What follows might be read as a cautionary tale on the perils of triumph in a probationary world where victory must follow victory. Elated by his success in 1980, and eager to make a continued mark with the CEO visà-vis the presidents of the other four companies, all of whom were vying for the open presidency of Covenant Corporation, Smith became the victim of his own upbeat marketing optimism. He overcommitted himself and the chemical company financially for the coming year just as the whole economy began to slide into recession. By mid-1981, profit targets had to be readjusted down and considerable anxiety pervaded Smith’s circle and the upper middle levels of management, whose job it became both to extract more profits from below and to maintain a public facade of cheerful equanimity. A top executive at Alchemy Inc. describes this anxiety: See, the problem with any change of CEO is that any credibility you have built up with the previous guy all goes by the board and you have to begin from scratch. This CEO thinks that everybody associated with the company before him is a dummy. And so you have to prove yourself over and over again. You can’t just win some and lose some. You have to keep your winning record at least at 75 percent if not better. You’re expected to take risks. At least the CEO says that, but the reality is that people are afraid to make mistakes. Toward the end of the year, it became clear that the chemical company would reach only 60 percent of its profit target and that only by remarkable legerdemain with the books. Publicly, of course, managers continued to evince a “cautious optimism” that things would turn around; privately, however, a deepening sense of gloom and incipient panic pervaded the organization. Stories began to circulate about the CEO’s unhappiness with the company’s shortfall. To take but one example, managers in chemical fertilizers were told by the CEO never again to offer weather conditions or widespread farmer bankruptcy as excuses for lagging sales. Rumors of every sort began to flourish, and a few of these are worth recounting. Smith was on his way out, it was feared, and would take the whole structure of Alchemy Inc. with him. In fact, one of the CEO’s most trusted troubleshooters, a man who “eats people for breakfast,” was gunning for Smith and his job. (This man distinguished himself around this time by publicly accusing those who missed a 9:00 A.M. staff meeting, held during one of the worst snowstorms in two decades, of being disloyal to Covenant.) Smith would survive, it was said, but would be forced to sacrifice all of his top people, alter his organization’s structure, and buckle under to the increasingly vigorous demands of the CEO. The CEO, it was argued, was about to put the whole chemical company on the block; in fact, the real purpose of creating supposedly self-contained companies in the first place might have been to package them for sale. At the least, the CEO would sell large portions of Alchemy Inc., wreaking havoc with its support groups at corporate headquarters. Though badly scarred, Smith managed to deflect blame for the bad year onto the heads of a few general managers, all from the old process division, whom he fired. One ominous note was Smith’s loss of administrative control of the corporate headquarters site, a function that had fallen to the chemical company during the “big purge.” A fundamental rule of corporate politics is that one never cedes control over assets, even if the assets are administrative headaches. Smith was thus able to maintain a basic rule of management circles, namely that management takes care of itself, at least of other known managers, in good times and bad.

  • Managers have an acute sense of organizational contingency. Because of the interlocking ties between people, they know that a shake-up at or near the top of a hierarchy can trigger a widespread upheaval, bringing in its wake startling reversals of fortune, good and bad, throughout the structure. Managers’ cryptic aphorism, “Well, you never know…,” repeated often and regularly, captures the sense of uncertainty created by the constant potential for social reversal. Managers know too, and take for granted, that the personnel changes brought about by upheavals are to a great extent arbitrary and depend more than anything else on one’s social relationships with key individuals and with groups of managers. Periods of organizational quiescence and stability still managers’ wariness in this regard, but the foreboding sense of contingency never entirely disappears. Managers’ awareness of the complex levels of conflict in their world, built into the very structure of bureaucratic organizations, constantly reminds them that things can very quickly fall apart.

  • The political struggles at Covenant Corporation, for instance, suggest some immediately observable levels of conflict and tension. First, occupational groups emerging from the segmented structure of bureaucratic work, each with different expertise and emphasis, constantly vie with one another for ascendancy of their ideas, of their products or services, and of themselves. It is, for instance, an axiom of corporate life that the greatest satisfaction of production people is to see products go out the door; of salesmen, to make a deal regardless of price; of marketers, to control salesmen and squeeze profits out of their deals; and of financial specialists, to make sure that everybody meets budget. Despite the larger interdependence of such work, the necessarily fragmented functions performed day-to-day by managers in one area often put them at cross purposes with managers in another. Nor do competitiveness and conflict result only from the broad segmentation of functions. Sustained work in a product or service area not only shapes crucial social affiliations but also symbolic identifications, say, with particular products or technical services, that mark managers in their corporate arenas. Such symbolic markings make it imperative for managers to push their particular products or services as part of their overall self promotion. This fuels the constant scramble for authoritative enthusiasm for one product or service rather than another and the subsequent allocation or re-allocation of organizational resources. Second, line and staff managers, each group with different responsibilities, different pressures, and different bailiwicks to protect, fight over organizational resources and over the rules that govern work. The very definition of staff depends entirely on one’s vantage point in the organization. As one manager points out: “From the perspective of the guy who actually pushes the button to make the machine go, everyone else is staff.” However, the working definition that managers use is that anyone whose decisions directly affect profit and loss is in the line; all others in an advisory capacity of some sort are staff. As a general rule, line managers’ attitudes toward staff vary directly with the independence granted staff by higher management. The more freedom staff have to intervene in the line, as with the environmental staff at Alchemy or Covenant’s corporate staff, the more they are feared and resented by line management. For line managers, independent staff represent either the intrusion of an unwelcome “rules and procedures mentality” into situations where line managers feel that they have to be alert to the exigencies of the market or, alternatively, as power threats to vested interests backed by some authority. In the “decentralized” organizations prevalent today in the corporate world, however, most staff are entirely dependent on the line and must market their technical, legal, or organizational skills to line managers exactly as an outside firm must do. The continual necessity for staff to sell their technical expertise helps keep them in check since line managers, pleading budgetary stringency or any number of other acceptable rationales, can thwart or ignore proffered assistance. Staff’s dependent position often produces jealous respect for line management tinged with the resentment that talented people relegated to do “pine time” (sit on the bench) feel for those in the center of action. For instance, an environmental manager at Weft Corporation comments on his marginal status and on how he sees it depriving him of the recognition he feels his work deserves: I also want recognition. And usually the only way you get that is having a boss near you who sees what you do. It rubs me raw in fact. . . . For instance, you know they run these news releases when some corporate guy gets promoted and all? Well, when I do something, nothing ever gets said. When I publish papers, or get promoted, and so on, you never see any public announcement. Oh, they like me to publish papers and I guess someone reads them, but that’s all that’s ever said or done….I can get recognition in a variety of arenas, like professional associations, but if they’re going to recognize the plant manager, why not me? If we walked off, would the plants operate? They couldn’t. We’re essential. This kind of ambivalent resentment sometimes becomes vindictiveness when a top boss uses staff as a hammer. Third, powerful managers in Alchemy Inc., each controlling considerable resources and the organizational fates of many men and women, battle fiercely with one another to position themselves, their products, and their allies favorably in the eyes of their president and of the CEO. At the same time, high-ranking executives “go to the mat” with one another striving for the CEO’s approval and a coveted shot at the top. Bureaucratic hierarchies, simply by offering ascertainable rewards for certain behavior, fuel the ambition of those men and women ready to subject themselves to the discipline of external exigencies and of their organization’s institutional logic, the socially constructed, shared understanding of how their world works. However, since rewards are always scarce, bureaucracies necessarily pit people against each other and inevitably thwart the ambitions of some. The rules of such combat vary from organization to organization and depend largely on what top management countenances either openly or tacitly. Nor are formal positions and perquisites the only objects of personal struggle between managers. Even more important on a day-to-day basis is the ongoing competition between talented and aggressive people to see whose will prevails, who can get things done their way. The two areas are, of course, related since one’s chances in an organization depend largely on one’s “credibility,” that is, on the widespread belief that one can act effectively. One must therefore prevail regularly, though not always, in small things to have any hope of positioning oneself for big issues. The hidden agenda of seemingly petty disputes may be a struggle over long-term organizational fates. At the same time, all of these struggles take place within the peculiar tempo and framework each CEO establishes for an organization. Under an ideology of thorough decentralization—the gift of authority with responsibility—the CEO at Covenant actually centralizes his power enormously because fear of derailing personal ambitions prevents managers below him from acting without his approval. A top official at Alchemy comments: What we have now, despite rhetoric to the contrary, is a very centralized system. It’s [the CEO] who sets the style, tone, tempo of all the companies. He says: “Manage for cash,” and we manage for cash. The original idea…was to set up free-standing companies with a minimum of corporate staff. But…we’re moving toward a system that is really beyond what we used to have, let alone modeled on a small corporate staff and autonomous divisions. What we used to have was separate divisions reporting to a corporate staff. I think we’re moving away from that idea too. I think what’s coming is a bunch of separate businesses reporting to the corporation. It’s a kind of portfolio management. This accords perfectly with [the CEO’s] temperament. He’s a financial type guy who is oriented to the bottom line numbers. He doesn’t want or need intermediaries between him and his businesses. In effect, the CEO of Covenant, who seems to enjoy constant turmoil, pits himself and his ego against the whole corporation even while he holds it in vassalage. Other CEOs establish different frameworks and different tempos, depending on self-image and temperament. The only firm rule seems to be that articulated by a middle-level Covenant manager: “Every big organization is set up for the benefit of those who control it; the boss gets what he wants.”

  • The continuous uncertainty and ambiguity of managerial hierarchies, exacerbated over time by masked conflict, causes managers to turn toward each other for cues for behavior. They try to learn from each other and to master the shared assumptions, the complex rules, the normative codes, the underlying institutional logic that governs their world. They thus try to control the construction of their everyday reality. Normally, of course, one learns to master the managerial code in the course of repeated, long-term social interaction with other managers, particularly in the course of shaping the multiple and complex alliances essential to organizational survival and success. Alliances are ties of quasi-primal loyalty shaped especially by common work, by common experiences with the same problems, the same friends, or the same enemies, and by favors traded over time. Although alliances are rooted in fealty and patronage relationships, they are not limited by such relationships since fealty shifts with changing work assignments or with organizational upheavals. Making an alliance may mean, for instance, joining or, more exactly, being included in one or several of the many networks of managerial associates that crisscross an organization. Conceptually, networks are usually thought of as open-ended webs of association with a low degree of formal organization and no distinct criteria of membership.3 One becomes known, for instance, as a trusted friend of a friend; thought of as a person to whom one can safely refer a thorny problem; considered a “sensible” or “reasonable” or, especially, a “flexible” person, not a “renegade” or a “loose cannon rolling around the lawn”; known to be a discreet person attuned to the nuances of corporate etiquette, one who can keep one’s mouth shut or who can look away and pretend to notice nothing; or considered a person with sharp ideas that break deadlocks but who does not object to the ideas being appropriated by superiors.

  • At the managerial and professional levels, the road between work and life is usually open because it is difficult to refuse to use one’s influence, patronage, or power on behalf of another regular member of one’s social coterie. It therefore becomes important to choose one’s social colleagues with some care and, of course, know how to drop them should they fall out of organizational favor. Alliances are also made wholly on the basis of specific self-interests. The paradigmatic case here is that of the power clique of established, well-placed managers who put aside differences and join forces for a “higher cause,” namely their own advancement or protection. Normally, though not always, as Brown’s case at Covenant shows, one must be “plugged into” important networks and an active participant in key coteries in order to have achieved an organizational position where one’s influence is actively counted. But the authority and power of a position matter in and of themselves. Once one has gained power, one can use one’s influence in the organization to shape social ties. Such alliances often cut across rival networks and coteries and can, in fact, temporarily unite them. Managers in a power clique map out desired organizational tacks and trade off the resources in their control. They assess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents; they plan coups and rehearse the appropriate rationales to legitimate them. And, on the other hand, they erect requisite barriers to squelch attempted usurpations of their power. Cliques also introduce managers to new, somewhat more exclusive networks and coteries. Especially at the top of a pyramid, these social ties extend over the boundaries of one’s own corporation and mesh one’s work and life with those of top managers in other organizations.

  • Just as managers must continually please their boss, their boss’s boss, their patrons, their president, and their CEO, so must they prove themselves again and again to each other. Work becomes an endless round of what might be called probationary crucibles. Together with the uncertainty and sense of contingency that mark managerial work, this constant state of probation produces a profound anxiety in managers, perhaps the key experience of managerial work. It also breeds, selects, or elicits certain traits in ambitious managers that are crucial to getting ahead.  
  • Within this complicated and ambiguous authority and social structure, always subject to upheaval, success and failure are meted out to those in the middle and upper-middle managerial ranks. Managers rarely speak of objective criteria for achieving success because once certain crucial points in one’s career are passed, success and failure seem to have little to do with one’s accomplishments.

  • In Alchemy Inc., whether in sales, marketing, manufacturing, or finance, the “breaking point” in the hierarchy is generally thought to be grade 13 out of 25 or the top 8.5 percent of management. By the time managers reach such a numbered grade in an ordered hierarchy— and the grade is socially defined and varies from company to company— managerial competence as such is taken for granted and assumed not to differ greatly from one manager to the next. One continues, of course, in a state of probation, and one’s competence is always subject to review and to redefinition. One must, therefore, always avoid being associated with big mistakes since a reputation carefully wrought over a number of years can be twisted out of shape in a day by a major blunder. As it happens, the nature of managerial work itself is to oversee others’ work and therefore to depend on others. The higher one rises in a management hierarchy, however, the more layers accrue between oneself and actual work tasks where crucial mistakes can be made; therefore, the more one’s continued assertion of competence becomes hostage to others’ efforts as well as to others’ interpretations. It goes without saying that one must always make sure that significant others higher in the organization recognize and appreciate one’s continuing efforts. Unless he attends to this basic rule, even the best “can-do guy” runs the risk of getting stuck with work without recognition.  
  • Whatever their reasons or perceptions, some managers find therefore comfortable organizational niches and settle into them. Tacit agreements are reached about them, a kind of silent barter—as long as they continue to perform their functional roles, they can stay. To some extent, they even become protected against reprisals during upheavals because the high stakes players in the corporation generally recognize that every organization needs such a core of people. One manager in Alchemy Inc. explains: You always need a core of people who will do the work in an organization whether it’s creative or not. You just can’t have all superstars. Potential is important but you need some people who are, well, drones. You don’t want them to move. You need people who will stay in a job for year after year and do the necessary work that is essential to an organization’s survival. Moreover, and just as important, drones threaten no one and can therefore maintain their anomalous position. They are, however, without influence and subject therefore to the faint contempt that the powerful, and especially the would-be powerful, reserve for the impotent. Such weakness can, of course, invite more direct abuse. To guard against this, even those managers who are happy where they are usually adopt, at least in public, the rhetoric of mobility. But for managers driven to get ahead—a category that includes incidentally virtually all young managers—even standing still for an instant, symbolically or actually, can be dangerous. A young manager in the chemical company: The whole thing becomes a complicated game of maintaining the public perception—the illusion really—that I’m on the move. In an inflating economy, if you just get 10–12 percent a year, you’re standing still, going nowhere. So the illusion of being a comer is crucial to success in the long run….If you let them for one minute give you just the 10 percent cost of living increase, you’re finished. Or if other people in the organization think for one minute that you’ve begun to slip, you’re finished and your influence—whatever it is— evaporates. Only rising stars validate the ethos of the corporation and can claim and win the respect and perhaps the anticipatory fear of others. Hard work, unremitting effort, it is said, is the key to success. Some top executives often state this connection between hard work and success as a necessary, taken for granted relationship. When asked who gets ahead, an executive vice-president at Weft Corporation says: The guys who want it [get ahead]. The guys who work. You can spot it in the first six months. They work hard, they come to work earlier, they leave later. They have suggestions at meetings. They come into a business and the business picks right up. They don’t go on coffee breaks down here [in the basement]. You see the parade of people going back and forth down here? There’s no reason for that. I never did that. If you need coffee, you can have it at your desk. Some people put in time and some people work. Such statements of the equation between work and success not only implicitly exhort others to greater efforts, but also legitimate one’s own rise. These kinds of rationales filter down through an organization changing shape and meaning in the process. They survive in their most pristine form in those managerial occupations where the results of work are clearly measurable. Sales managers, in particular, who can graph with great precision the upward or downward trajectories of their charges’ work often remain as addicted to the instant gratification of consummated deals as college boys “carrying a bag” for the first time. Plant managers who can measure their output by gallons of sulfuric acid, tons of soda ash, or yards of cloth also tend to see success directly tied to hard work.

  • See, once you are at a certain level of experience, the difference between a vice president, an executive vice-president, and a general manager is negligible. It has relatively little to do with ability as such. People are all good at that level. They wouldn’t be there without that ability. So it has little to do with ability or with business experience and so on. All have similar levels of ability, drive, competence, and so on. What happens is that people perceive in others what they like—operating styles, lifestyles, personalities, ability to get along. Now these are all very subjective judgments. And what happens is that if a person in authority sees someone else’s guy as less competent than his own guy, well, he’ll always perceive him that way. And he’ll always pick—as a result—his own guy when the chance to do so comes up.

  • Proper management of one’s external appearances simply signals to one’s peers and to one’s superiors that one is prepared to undertake other kinds of self-adaptation. Managers also stress the need to exercise iron self-control and to have the ability to mask all emotion and intention behind bland, smiling, and agreeable public faces. One must avoid both excessive gravity and unwarranted levity. One must blunt one’s aggressiveness with blandness. One must be buoyant and enthusiastic but never Pollyannish. One must not reveal one’s leanings until one’s ducks are in a row. One must be able to listen to others’ grievances and even attacks upon oneself while maintaining an appropriately concerned, but simultaneously dispassionate countenance. In such situations, some managers don masks of Easter-Island-statuelike immobility; others a deadpan fish-eye; and the most adroit, a disarming ingenuousness. One must remember, for instance, that in our litigious age the best rule in dealing with angry subordinates is to say nothing or as little as possible since whatever one says may be used against oneself and one’s organization. Sometimes this may mean suppressing the natural desire to defend oneself. Moreover, one must always guard against betraying valuable secret knowledge (for instance, knowledge of pending organizational upheaval, knowledge of firings, promotions, or demotions, or knowledge of private deals between one’s colleagues) or intentions through some relaxation of self-control (for example, an indiscreet comment or a lack of adroitness in turning aside a query). Such lapses can not only jeopardize a manager’s immediate position but can undermine others’ trust in him. Furthermore, one must not enter any sexual involvements that might jeopardize other important social relationships or one’s public image. One does not, therefore, sleep with one’s boss’s secretary (“You should never get your meat where you get your bread and butter”), and one should never, of course, allow oneself to become infatuated with another person so that one loses control.

  • It is also crucial to be perceived as a team player. This multifaceted notion has its metaphorical basis in team sports, principally football, a game that parallels managerial work in its specialization, segmentation, strategy, hierarchy, and the possibility of sudden bursts of spectacular individual effort made possible by the group. Of all major sports, football resonates most deeply with managers’ preferred image of what they do and lends a myriad of phrases to managerial argot.

  • Managers often point, too, to the coordination and cooperation achieved through team play in the space program, sentiments voiced before the string of Challenger disasters. These images of the possibilities of cooperative effort, of coordinating people and resources to meet a crisis or great challenge, seem to legitimate for managers their actual day-to-day experiences with the ethos of team play. The main dimensions of team play are as follows. 1. One must appear to be interchangeable with other managers near one’s level. Corporations discourage narrow specialization more strongly as one goes higher. They also discourage the expression of moral or political qualms. One might object, for example, to working with chemicals used in nuclear power, or working on weapons systems, and most corporations today would honor such objections. Publicly stating them, however, would end any realistic aspirations for higher posts because one’s usefulness to the organization depends on versatility. As one manager in Alchemy Inc. comments: “Well, we’d go along with his request but we’d always wonder about the guy. And in the back of our minds, we’d be thinking that he’ll soon object to working in the soda ash division because he doesn’t like glass.” Strong convictions of any sort are suspect. One manager says: If you meet a guy who hates red-haired persons, well, you’re going to wonder about whether that person has other weird perceptions as well. You’ve got to have a degree of interchangeability in business. To me, a person can have any beliefs they want, as long as they leave them at home. Similarly, one’s spouse’s public viewpoints or activities could reduce others’ perceptions of a manager’s versatility or indeed ability. In reference to another manager whose wife was known to be active in environmental action groups, lobbying in fact for legislation on chemical waste disposal, one Alchemy manager says: “If a guy can’t even manage his own wife, how can he be expected to manage other people?” Interchangeability means then not just generalized skills but a flexibility of perspective that will permit rapid adjustment to internal and external exigencies. 2. Another important meaning of team play is putting in long hours at the office. The norms here are set, of course, by higher-ups and vary from corporation to corporation. The story is told in Covenant Corporation about how the CEO was distressed, upon first taking power, to find no one at work when he reached corporate headquarters at his accustomed hour of 6:30 A.M. He remedied the loneliness of the situation by leaving notes on the desks of all his top executives saying, “Call me when you get in.” Since he usually stays in the office well into the evening, he had effectively lengthened the workday for everyone by several hours. Higher-level managers in all the corporations I studied commonly spend twelve to fourteen hours a day at the office. This requires a great deal of sheer physical energy and stamina, even though much of this time is spent not in actual work as such, but in social rituals—like reading and discussing articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and Forbes; having informal conversations; casually polling the opinions of participants in upcoming meetings; or popping in and out of other managers’ offices with jokes, cartoons, or amusing or enraging journalistic articles. These kinds of readily observable rituals forge the social bonds—what might be called the professional intimacy—that make real managerial work, that is, group work of various sorts, possible. One must participate in the rituals to be considered effective in the work. Managers who do not put in the time at the office or who do not engage in the endless round of face-to-face encounters that make up daily managerial life and that provide the opportunity to prove one’s trustworthiness will find themselves “sidelined” or off the team altogether. For this reason, executives do not like to take extended business trips and many break up their vacations into one-week segments rather than risk being away from the office for too long. The public reason for such attentiveness to one’s duties is, of course, one’s devotion to the organization. The real reason is a fear that prolonged absence from one’s everyday interactional milieux will cause or tempt others to forget that one exists. 3. Team playing means being seen as an effective group member, sticking to one’s assigned position. The good team player is not a prima donna. This holds true even when one is considered a rising star. For example, a top executive of Weft Corporation says: Who gets ahead? They are people who are good team players. Most are not prima donnas. Prima donnas are very disruptive in this company. Even if a person is a prima donna, he usually tries hard not to look like one. The success of the operating divisions depends on the close cooperation of a number of people—in sales and merchandising and in the South. So that the person who is to really succeed here has to be a team player first and foremost. Striking, distinctive characteristics of any sort, in fact, are dangerous in the corporate world. One of the most damaging things, for instance, that can be said about a manager is that he is brilliant. This almost invariably signals a judgment that the person has publicly asserted his intelligence and is perceived as a threat to others. What good is a wizard who makes his colleagues and his customers uncomfortable? Equally damaging is the judgment that a person cannot get along with others—he is “too pushy,” that is, he exhibits too much “persistence in getting to the right answers,” is “always asking why,” and does not know “when to back off.” Or he is “too abrasive,” or “too opinionated,” unable “to bend with the group.” Or he is a “wildman” or a “maverick,” that is, someone who is “outspoken.” Or he may be too aloof, too distant, “too professional.” A manager who has “ice water in his veins” or is thought to be a “cold fish” might impress others with his tough pragmatism, but he will win few alliances and in time his social standing and effectiveness will be eroded. Women, in particular, face a troublesome dilemma here. If a female executive’s public face presents a warm, engaging femininity that distinguishes her from the minions of female clerical workers adopting the “corporate clone” look and practicing the new techniques of self-assertiveness, she runs the risk of being seen by her male colleagues as a “cookie” or a “fluffhead” and dismissed as inconsequential. If she, on the other hand, assumes a public severity in her demeanor, especially if she seems ambitious, she may be labeled a “calculating bitch,” a difficult label to shake. Moreover, an effective group member looks to others in making decisions, recognizes that one must always think defensively to protect one’s boss and one’s associates, and knows that he must “keep his nose clean” and stay out of trouble because “people who have made big mistakes are very damaging to the team approach.” 4. Team play also means, as one manager in the chemical company puts it, “aligning oneself with the dominant ideology of the moment” or, as another says, “bowing to whichever god currently holds sway.” Such ideologies or gods may be thought of as official definitions of reality. As I suggested earlier, bureaucracies allow their employees a diverse range of private motives for action in return for assent to common rules and official versions of reality, that is, explanations or accounts that serve or at least do not injure the organization itself. Organizations always try, of course, to mobilize employees’ belief in manufactured realities; such efforts always meet with some success particularly at the middle levels among individuals who still labor under the notion that success depends on sincerity. However, the belief of insiders in abstract goals is not a prerequisite for personal success; belief in and subordination to individuals who articulate organizational goals is. One must, however, to be successful in a bureaucratic work situation, be able to act, at a moment’s notice, as if official reality is the only reality. The contexts for understanding this meaning of team play are the complicated levels of conflict within corporations and the probationary state of mind endemic to managerial work. The knowledgeable practitioners of corporate politics, whether patrons or leaders of cliques and networks, value nothing more highly than at least the appearance of unanimity of opinion among their clients and allies, especially during times of turmoil. They invoke the vocabulary of team play to bring their own people into line as well as to cast suspicion on others who pose some threat to them. If one examines the way team play is defined, invoked, and experienced at different levels of a hierarchy, one can see its use as an ideology.

  • The skillful boss uses ideologies such as team play adroitly, counting on subordinates to get the message and do what he wants. The same executive continues: Another meaning of team play is its use as a club. You use it to push people into corners without seeming to. If I say to you, do this and you say that you don’t really want to, but I insist, well, you’ve put the guy in an uncomfortable position and yourself too. But if you do it skillfully, the guy is not going to go away boxed. So, on one hand, you can’t force them to do something, but you also can’t manipulate them to do it; people resent this. What you do is to appeal to something like teamwork and they choose to do it because they know how important and valued it is in the organization. The boss has the extra vote but he has to cast it with some skill. A team player is a manager who does not “force his boss to go to the whip,” but, rather, amiably chooses the direction his boss points out. Managers who choose otherwise or who evince stubbornness are said to “have made a decision,” a phrase almost always used to describe a choice that will shorten a career.   
  • A middle-level manager in Alchemy Inc. puts a sharp edge on the same sentiment: Someone who is talking about team play is out to squash dissent. It’s the most effective way to tell people who have different perspectives to shut up. You say that you want a team effort. . . . You can and you have to learn to keep your mouth shut. My boss is like that. Everyone likes him because he is like that. It’s hurt me because I have spoken out. It might be that someone has formed the opinion that I have interesting things to say, but more likely, it gives you a troublemaker label and that’s one that is truly hard to get rid of. The troublemaker is often a creative person but truly creative people don’t get ahead; to get ahead you have to be dependable and a team player. You have to be steady….When I hear the word, I immediately think it’s an effort to crush dissent. . . . [Bosses] say they don’t want a yes man, but, in fact, most bosses don’t want to hear the truth. And this is particularly true if it disagrees with what they want to do. Younger managers learn quickly that, whatever the public protestations to the contrary, bosses generally want pliable and agreeable subordinates, especially during periods of crisis. Clique leaders want dependable, loyal allies. Those who regularly raise objections to what a boss or a clique leader really desires run the risk of being considered problems themselves and of being labeled “outspoken,” or “nonconstructive,” or “doomsayers,” “naysayers,” or “crepehangers.” Organizations vary in this respect and some tolerate, and indeed encourage, high degrees of dissent and controversy within particular work groups or within given strata of managers, that is, between peers or managers of different rank who consider themselves colleagues. Moreover, generally speaking, dissent on points of demonstrable fact is acceptable provided that one corrects others, even superiors, tactfully and does not make others look foolish in public. 

  • Organizations vary in this respect and some tolerate, and indeed encourage, high degrees of dissent and controversy within particular work groups or within given strata of managers, that is, between peers or managers of different rank who consider themselves colleagues. Moreover, generally speaking, dissent on points of demonstrable fact is acceptable provided that one corrects others, even superiors, tactfully and does not make others look foolish in public. However, when interpretive judgments or plain desires are involved, or when an issue spills out of smaller groups into the larger political structures of an organization, or when higher authorities get involved, a new dynamic takes over. What are “frank perspectives” in a strictly collegial context can get interpreted in the political or hierarchical arenas as “downbeat negativism” or even “disloyalty.” Wise and ambitious managers know that public faces of cheerful cooperativeness, which of course they generally require from their own subordinates, put superiors and important allies at ease. And, of course, the ability to put others at ease is an important skill in a world where one must be continually on guard against the eruption of usually suppressed conflict. 5. Team players display a happy, upbeat, can-do approach to their work and to the organization. A vice-president in the Metals Division of Covenant Corporation states: Your degree of happiness is important. If someone is always pissing and moaning then that affects your evaluation of them….If you’re not happy in what you do, you can generate a synergism of apathy. If everybody talks about failure, you’re going to fail. Happy people are nicer to be around. It’s important to be an up person. And to keep an up perspective. I mean, how do you like it when you ask a guy how things are and he says: “Well, I have a corn on my toe and I don’t feel well and so on and on”? He’s telling you more than you want to know. And that attitude will poison everyone around him. I always start looking for a positive result. . . . You have to feel that way. People don’t want to parade in unison into a vale of doom. A world geared toward pragmatic accomplishments places a great premium on the appearance of buoyant optimism. Looking on the bright side of things, always “try[ing] to see the glass as half full rather than half empty,” is felt to be a prerequisite for any action at all, let alone managerial work that involves imparting energy, enthusiasm, and direction to others, indeed a sense of social cohesiveness.

  • In a word, a team player is alert to the social cues that he receives from his bosses, his peers, and the intricate pattern of social networks, coteries, and cliques that crisscross the organization. Depending on the vocabulary of his company, a team player “fits in,” “gets along with others,” is “a good old country boy,” “knows how to schmooze.” He is a “role player” who plays his part without complaint. He does not threaten others by appearing brilliant, or with his personality, his ability, or his personal values. He masks his ambition and his aggressiveness with blandness. He recognizes trouble and stays clear of it. He protects his boss and his associates from blunders. When he disagrees with others, he does so tactfully, preferably in private, and then in ways that never call others’ judgments into question. Even in dark times, he keeps a sunny disposition and learns always to find the bright side of bleak news. In short, he makes other managers feel comfortable, the crucial virtue in an uncertain world, and establishes with others the easy predictable familiarity that comes from sharing taken for granted frameworks about how the world works.

  • All but the topmost person in a hierarchical organization is a subordinate to others and must, to some extent, cultivate the virtues of team play. Otherwise he will never reach a position where subordinates come to think of him as a leader. Moreover, to keep rising, managers must have the proper style to differentiate themselves from other managers and to push themselves into the organizational limelight. One of the top executives in the chemical company says: Now I’ll admit that the majority of the work is done at G-13 or around that level, say G-12, G-13, and G-14. That’s where the real work work is done. Beyond that level is more management, more planning, more promotion, more accountability oriented. There’s less day-to-day work involved. Now at the G13 or G-14 levels, the same kind of skills are needed as later on, but higher up a different set of skills become predominant.It’s style. You have to remember that a firm gets very narrow after a certain point and, when you get right down to it, if you have an ability and others have the same ability, what is going to make the difference? Not intellectual ability. It’s going to be style . . . that differentiates one person from the next. He goes on to discuss the principal constituents of style. [It’s] being able to talk with and interrelate with people, all kinds of people. Being able to make a good case for something. Being able to sell something. Being able to put things well; being articulate. [It’s] presentation ability in particular. Other managers emphasize the crucial importance of presentational ability. A middle-level product manager at Weft Corporation explains: Persons who can present themselves well, who can sell themselves the best are the kind of people who get ahead. It’s an image type thing. Not just doing the job right but being able to capitalize on it in certain ways. Some people are gifted at doing that. They handle themselves very well. They may not be take-charge people but they give you the impression that they are. They dress properly and dress is very important. And how they handle themselves at a meeting is extremely important. This is especially true at pressure-cooker-type meetings which is what divisional meetings are. People get up and review their numbers. It’s a stagelike atmosphere. People have to justify their numbers. And everybody knows why things fall apart sometimes, but some people are able to explain things better and highlight the good points in ways that impress other people. It’s having a certain grace, charm, adroitness, and humor….I think what’s important is to portray yourself as very decisive, as being able to think on your feet. There are some people who will go after you and the important thing is not to get flustered. Most people work at this self-presentation. They rehearse their slides before they have to give a talk….Or they’ll rehearse their speech again and again and stay up going over the numbers.

  • A general manager at Alchemy emphasizes the importance of seeming to be in command: [Style] is being able to talk easily and make presentations. To become credible easily and quickly. You can advance quickly even without technical experience if you have style. You get a lot of points for style. You’ve got to be able to articulate problems, plans, and strategies without seeming to have to refer to all sorts of memos and so on. The key in public performances and presentations is in knowing how to talk forcefully without referring to notes and memoranda. To be able to map out plans quickly and surely. An upper-middle executive in the chemical company points out how certain occupational specialties in management offer more opportunities than others to make presentations. The ability to seize these chances, using the requisite skills, can propel a manager’s career in a hurry: Sales people and business people [are] constantly being exposed to management, making presentations to the Operating Committee. If they are articulate, well-dressed, articulate their program well, they make an indelible impression. I’ve seen many guys who on the basis of one presentation have been promoted beyond their abilities. And if they’re telling the top guys good news in the bargain, well, that just helps them.

  • Having the right style also means mirroring the kind of image that top bosses have of themselves, “mak[ing] the people most responsible for [one’s] fate comfortable.” Without such a clear meshing of styles, and this is a central meaning of the notion of comfort, managers have little chance of being taken into the higher circles of an organization. A top Alchemy executive states: When you get to the very top—and this is an observable thing—your style cannot be in conflict with the style of the guys on top. If there is a conflict, you’re not going to last very long. The style that most large corporations want their up-and-coming managers to project both within the organization and in other public arenas is that of “the young, professional, conservative person” who “knows what is going on in the world” and who is “broad as a person” with interests that transcend the work milieu. When top corporate circles mesh with high intellectual, artistic, political, and civic social circles of metropolitan areas—this is particularly true of Weft Corporation and Images Inc.—breadth, here measured by social poise and conversational ability, becomes crucial. A top official of Weft explains: We want someone with breadth, with some interests outside the business, someone who is broad as a person. And this can be in anything—the arts, sports, or both, in local politics, in Toastmasters, in Little League, in the eleemosynary organizations. Why? Because they’re bigger people and they can do the job better in the long run if they have bigger interests, broader interests. We’d like to think that they represent [Weft Corporation] well when they’re in public—that when someone asks them what they do and they say that they work for [Weft Corporation] the person has a good impression of the company through them. And you can sense what kind of people will create that kind of impression. In short, managers with the right style possess a subtle, almost indefinable sophistication and polish, essentially a savoir faire, marked especially by an urbane, witty, graceful, engaging, and friendly demeanor. They are men and women of discriminating taste, of ostensibly balanced judgment, marked with an open-minded tolerance towards others’ foibles and idiosyncrasies, at least in public, and with an ability to direct social interaction and conversation into well-grooved and accepted channels. They are able to frame issues with a graceful flair, subtly but forcefully dramatizing themselves in the process. Finally, men and women with the right style know how to assess and adjust themselves with poised ease and an air of quiet decisiveness to the nuances, exigencies, and shifting moralities of social situations. Some observers have interpreted such conformity, team playing, continual affability, and emphasis on social finesse as evidence of the decline of the individualism of the old Protestant ethic.   
  • In a world where appearances—in the broadest sense—mean everything, the wise and ambitious manager learns to cultivate assiduously the proper, prescribed modes of appearing. He dispassionately takes stock of himself, treating himself as an object, as a commodity. He analyzes his strengths and weaknesses and decides what he needs to change in order to survive and flourish in his organization. And then he systematically undertakes a program to reconstruct his image, his publicly avowed attitudes or ideas, or whatever else in his self presentation that might need adjustment. As I have suggested, this means sharply curbing one’s impulses, indeed spontaneity of any sort, and carefully calculating instead both the appropriate modes of packaging oneself and the social consequences of one’s every action. Such self-regulation requires simultaneously great discipline and “flexibility,” since one must continually adjust oneself to meet the ever-changing demands of different career stages and, of more immediate consequence, the expectations of crucial social circles in ever-changing organizational milieux. An enterprising young manager, touching on all the crucial aspects of public faces treated here, describes how he tailors his style to criteria valued by key circles in Alchemy Inc. after the “big purge” of October 1979. His view is more fully articulated than that of most managers but his high degree of self-consciousness about his self-streamlining helps illuminate the self-adjustment that other managers take for granted. 

  • The image that they want—if you go to the management committee, they all look the same. They’re not robots in a Wall Street firm; but they’re clean-cut young executives—short hair, no mustaches, button-down collars, Hickey Freeman suits….Then there are the mannerisms. They like you to be well-organized, well-spoken. They like presentations, briefings. The greatest thing for your career is to go before the Operating Committee and talk. It’s your day in the sun, or rather your five minutes in the sun. What they like are the slick presentations with slides, with overheads. Short, succinct. Tell them what they want to hear.  
  • People who are comers— the fair-haired boys—all exhibit the same traits. They are all fast on their feet, well-spoken. They all send visibility memos. You know, get your name out, let people know you’re managing. Cultivate pseudo-leadership. Develop a habit of calling somebody back in a hurry. Wearing your [Covenant] tie.  
  • I don’t have the responsibility for a salesman’s job in this company, but I sell everybody every day. What I sell is me—myself.  
  • To advance, a manager must, as suggested earlier, have a patron, also called a mentor, a sponsor, a rabbi, or a godfather. A patron provides his client with opportunities to get “visibility,” to “showcase” his abilities, to step out of the crowd at the middle levels, to make connections with others of high status. A patron cues his client to crucial political developments in the corporation, helps arrange lateral moves if the client’s upward progress is thwarted by a particular job or a particular boss, applauds his presentations or suggestions at meetings, introduces his client to the right people at the right times, and promotes his client during an organizational shake-up, usually to posts where the patron needs someone of unswerving loyalty. The signs of favor from a patron and, of course, a client’s reciprocal obligations, vary widely. One powerful manager, for example, adopts a succession of bright young protégés with whom he shares work, troubles, and secrets in return for steadfast loyalty and for the enlivening enthusiasm of the young. If he becomes disappointed with his charges, they fall back into the obscurity from which he plucked them. But under his tutelage, many have gone on to high positions, extending the patron’s influence in subtle but important ways. More generally, to the extent that a patron “invests” in a client, to that extent will he make sure that the client does not fail since a client’s failure can damage a patron’s reputation for picking winners. The client, in turn, cheers his patron’s strategies in public and arranges support for them in private. Most important, he makes sure that the patron always has access to vital information—technical and political—lest the patron make a public mistake and lose “credibility.” The more powerful a patron, the more other managers fear his clients, since to oppose the clients is to call the patron’s judgment into question. One must, of course, be lucky in one’s patron. If the patron gets caught in a political cross fire, the arrows are likely to find his clients as well.

  • A manager must, of course, also develop the intricate alliances with other managers that will provide him with a secure political base to weather storms and that will make him attractive to patrons. To the extent that a manager can master whatever social criteria are posed for admission to the matrices of crisscrossing networks, coteries, and cliques, to that extent will a patron’s actions on a client’s behalf be seen to serve the interests and reflect the judgments of many. Surely, one might argue, there must be more to success in the corporation than appearances, personality, team play, style, chameleonic adaptability, and fortunate connections. What about the bottom line—profits, performance? After all, whole forests have been demolished to print the endless number of tracts designed to ensure and extol “results-oriented management.” Unquestionably, “hitting your numbers”—that is, meeting the profit commitments already discussed—or achieving expected levels of performance in other areas is important, but only within the social context I have described. For instance, a general manager in the chemical company explains: You can lose money and still be an insider; you can make money and still be an outsider. If you’re not part of the team being developed, well, your chances are slim….It’s crucial to be both making money and be included in the developing team. More generally, there are several rules that apply here. First, no one in a line position—that is, with responsibility for profit and loss—who regularly “misses his numbers” will survive, let alone rise. Second, a person who always hits his numbers but who lacks some or all of the required social skills will not rise. Third, a person who sometimes misses his numbers but who has all the desirable social traits will rise. Performance is thus always subject to a myriad of interpretations. Profits and other kinds of results matter, but managers see no necessary connections between performance and reward. Although meritocratic ideologies are constantly invoked in the corporate world to explain or justify promotions, demotions, or other organizational changes, such rationales are always viewed by managers with a measure of skepticism. First, the contingency of corporate life, most evident, as discussed earlier, during shake-ups, erodes traditional notions of loyalty or of “trust in the system” and creates a deep and unsettling uncertainty about how, in fact, one is to “get on.”   
  • Except in cases of major public blunders covered by the media—managers say that those who have suffered such misfortune might as well have the word “asshole” branded on their foreheads—things rarely come to such a dramatic pass even in the midst of an organizational crisis. Rather, “failure is perception,” that is, a set of coinciding judgments that one “cannot cut the mustard” or, especially, that one is “nonpromotable.” Managers can be thought to be non promotable for many reasons—a manager “doesn’t fit in,” he “doesn’t communicate well,” he is “too consumed with detail,” he is “not flexible enough,” or he is “not a self-starter” (meaning one has to pressure him to get anything done). An Alchemy executive explains the ambiguous nature of such attribution and how reputations about a manager develop in people’s cognitive maps: You can put the damper on anyone who works for you very easily and that’s why there’s too much chemistry in the corporation. There’s not enough objective information about people. When you really want to do somebody in, you just say, well, he can’t get along with people. That’s a big one. And we do that constantly. What that means, by the way, is that he pissed me off; he gave evidence of his frustration with some situation. Another big one is that he can’t manage—he doesn’t delegate or he doesn’t make his subordinates keep his commitments. So in this sort of way, a consensus does build up about a person and a guy can be dead and not even know it.  Those publicly labeled as failures normally have no choice but to leave the organization; those adjudged non promotable can remain, provided they are willing to stop moving ahead, or, as their influence inevitably wanes with their decreased mobility, accept being shelved, sidelined, sidetracked, or, more colorfully, “mushroomed”—that is, kept in a dark place, fed manure, and left with nothing to do but grow fat. This too, of course, is a kind of failure, indeed a serious one.

  • Finally, managers feel that there is a tremendous amount of plain luck involved in advancement. It is striking how often managers who pride themselves on being hard headed rationalists explain their own career patterns and those of others in terms of luck. The continual probations of managerial life and especially its ambiguous uncertainties shape this perception.  
  • A product manager in the chemical company talks about the lack of connection between work and results: I guess the most anxiety provoking thing about working in business is that you are judged on results whether those results are your fault or not. So you can get a guy who has tried really hard but disaster strikes; and you can get a guy who does nothing and his business makes a big success. And so you just never know which way things are going to go and you’re never sure about the relationship of your work to the outcome. One of the top executives in Weft Corporation echoes this sentiment: I always say that there is no such thing as a marketing genius; there are only great markets. Assuming a basic level of corporate resources and managerial know-how, real economic outcome is seen to depend on factors largely beyond organizational or personal control. Managerial planning becomes elaborate guesswork, though it remains a central organizational ritual—a kind of ceremony of rationality—closely linked to the commitment system that underpins fealty relationships. It is interesting to note in this context that a line manager’s long-run credibility suffers just as much from missing his numbers on the up side (that is, achieving profits higher than predicted) as from missing them on the down side although, as one might expect, the immediate consequences of such different miscalculations vary. Both outcomes, however, undercut the ideology of managerial planning and control. Moreover, planning serves as one of the few psychological bulwarks managers have against market irrationality. Planning is the basis for the legitimacy of resource allocation. A top staff official at Covenant Corporation explains: By putting the money in this business, you’re taking the money away from others. In human terms, that’s what you’re doing. It’s money that you could provide jobs with to others. So when you get a guy in the business who comes in under or over the plan, well, both are equally suspect. Because you’re making major decisions based on your plan. . . . Like when we shut down [business A] and put the money into [business B], the whole legitimacy of the operation depends on the [business A] guys accepting the rationale that more money can be made in another operation. Another bulwark against market irrationality, of course, is “working hard,” that is, putting in long hours at the office. For many managers, this is a psychological necessity to relieve the anxiety of being responsible for what one cannot control. One manager explains: This [lack of control] doesn’t mean you don’t work hard; at least in my case, that’s my answer. I have to believe I can influence events. That way, I feel good about myself even if my boss doesn’t. Many managers also note with irony that they work hardest, that is, put in the most hours, when economic times are bad, when even they see few practical results for their efforts. They do not do so because they actually expect their hours of work to produce an economic boom; rather, they know that, unless they are seen toiling with other managers, they might not be around when the good times start to roll.

  • A top-ranking executive suggests that the axiom of being in the right place at the right time has literal as well as broader figurative meaning: It’s being the right man at the right time….It’s recognizing that among people with equal abilities, sometimes just luck, plain luck, makes the difference. If there were a job open here at [company headquarters] and two people were being considered for it and one of them was right here and one of them on assignment in some other state, who do you think would get the job? Corporations do try to establish mechanisms to maximize their employees’ perceptions of rationality and equity and to minimize perceptions of chance and favoritism.  
  • The point is that managers have a sharply defined sense not only of the contingency but of the capriciousness of organizational life. Luck seems to be as good an explanation as any of why, after a certain point, some people succeed and others fail. The upshot is that many managers decide that they can do little to influence external events in their favor. This does not mean that they stop working or worrying; indeed, as noted earlier, the uncertainty and anxiety at the core of managerial life often make the social requirements for long hours at the office personal compulsions as well. One must not, however, let tasks distract one from the main chance. Even in an irrational world, one can at least exert rational control over oneself. Above all, one must learn to streamline oneself shamelessly, learn to wear all the right masks, learn all the proper vocabularies of discourse, get to know all the right people, and cultivate the subtleties of the art of self-promotion. One can then sit tight and wait for things to happen.   
  • I was called down to this room which was crowded with about nine people from the company who had seen the designs. I looked at this display and instantly hated them. I was asked what I thought but before I could open my mouth, people were jumping up and down clapping the designer on the back and so on. They had already decided to do it because the president had loved it. Of course, the whole affair was a total failure. The point is that in making decisions, people look up and look around. They rely on others,not because of inexperience, but because of fear of failure. They look up and look to others before they take any plunges.   
  • There’s a tremendous emphasis put on decision making here and in business in general. But decision making is not an individual process. We have training programs to teach people how to manage, we have courses, and all the guys know the rhetoric and they know they have to repeat it. But all these things have no relationship to the way they actually manage or make decisions. The basic principles of decision making in this organization and probably any organization are: (1) avoid making any decision if at all possible; (2) if a decision has to be made, involve as many people as you can so that, if things go south, you’re able to point in as many directions as possible.

  • Senior managers are generally better at making decisions precisely because their positions allow them to establish the evaluative frameworks against which their choices will be measured. But even they evince the same kind of paralysis if they sense trouble or if their purported autonomy is really a mirage.

  • There’s a lot of it [fear and anxiety]. To a large degree it’s because people are more honest with themselves than you might believe. People know their own shortcomings. They know when they’re over their heads. A lot of people are sitting in jobs that they know are bigger than they should be in. But they can’t admit that in public and, at still another level, to themselves. The organizational push for advancement produces many people who get in over their heads and don’t know what they are doing. And they are very fearful of making a mistake and this leads to all sorts of personal disloyalty. But people know their capabilities and know that they are on thin ice. And they know that if they make mistakes, it will cost them dearly. So there’s no honesty in our daily interaction and there’s doubt about our abilities. The two go together. Of course, one must never betray such uncertainty to others. Here the premium on self-control comes into play and many a manager’s life becomes a struggle to keep one’s nerve and appear calm and cool in the bargain. Making a decision, or standing by a decision once made, exposes carefully nurtured images of competence and know-how to the judgments of others, particularly of one’s superiors. As a result, many managers become extremely adept at sidestepping decisions altogether and shrugging off responsibility, all the while projecting an air of command, authority, and decisiveness, leaving those who actually do decide to carry the ball alone in the open field. Second, aspects of the structure of bureaucratic work itself prompt managers to look up and look around.

  • I shall mention here only a nonobvious and somewhat paradoxical influence. Bureaucracy breaks work into pieces and, in the process, the knowledge required and conferred by each piece of work. Generally speaking, only managers with a “need to know” something in order to complete their own work are privy to certain crucial details of decisions in other business areas. Of course, rumors, gossip, and the actual trading of secrets within alliances mean that such admonitions are often more honored in the breach than in the keeping; moreover, an adroit manager who “keeps his ear to the ground” can pick up enough details from various sources to piece together a coherent picture of events when such fragments are coupled with cognitive maps. However, even when such knowledge is possessed, and known to be possessed, organizational protocol usually demands that it be concealed behind public faces of discreet unconcern. Such a demand for secrecy or at least its appearance separates managers emotionally, except for shared confidences between trusted friends or allies, but it actually provides an important stimulus to link them socially. When a manager gets into a difficult situation that demands a hard decision, even when he knows that others are fully aware of his decision, he must actively involve them in his problems if he is to hope for their support later. Committees thus reduce the plausibility of “deniability” although, when things go wrong, instant amnesia always seems to become a widespread malady.

  • Numerical measures and other seemingly sophisticated analytical tools can only be “guideposts” in making such choices. Satisfactory rates of return are socially determined; they vary from industry to industry, indeed, from firm to firm, and involve complicated assessments of competitors’ strategies, actual, possible, or pending regulation, possible alternative investments, and, most important, key managers’ determinations of what levels of return are desirable, acceptable, and defensible. Since, as described earlier, credit flows up and details get pushed down in corporate hierarchies, managers at the middle and upper-middle levels are often left to sort out extremely complicated questions about technology, investment, and their bosses’ desires and intentions.

  • Managers think in the short run because they are evaluated by both their superiors and peers on their short term results. Those who are not seen to be producing requisite short-run gains come to be thought of as embarrassing liabilities. Of course, past work gets downgraded in such a process. The old saw, still heard frequently today, “I know what you did for me yesterday, but what have you done for me lately?” is more than a tired garment district salesman’s joke. It accurately reflects the widespread amnesia among managers about others’ past accomplishments, however notable, and points to the probationary crucibles at the core of managerial life. Managers feel that if they do not survive the short run, the long run hardly matters, and one can only buy time for the future by attending to short-term goals. As one manager says: “Our horizon is today’s lunch.”

  • Within such a context, managers know that even farsighted, correct decisions can shorten promising careers. A manager at Weft Corporation reflects: People are always calculating how others will see the decisions that they make. They are always asking: “What are the consequences of this decision?” They know that they have to gauge not just the external…market consequences of a decision, but the internal political consequences. And sometimes you can make the right market decision, but it can be the wrong political decision.

  • Decisions are made only when they are inevitable. To make a decision ahead of the time it has to be made risks political catastrophe. People can always interpret the decision as an unwise one even if it seems to be correct on other grounds. When a decision is inevitable, managers say, “The decision made itself.” Diffusion of responsibility, in the case of the coke battery by procrastinating until total crisis voided real choices, is intrinsic to organizational life because the real issue in most gut decisions is: Who is going to get blamed if things go wrong?

  • To blame someone is to injure him verbally in public; in large organizations where one’s image is crucial to one’s “credibility” and therefore one’s influence, this poses the most serious sort of threat. For managers, blame—like failure—has little to do with the actual merits of a case; it is a matter of social definition, that is, of public perception of having failed or, more usually, of being associated with a failure, a perception backed or at least tacitly countenanced by authority. Authorities can, of course, also deflect, mitigate, or preempt altogether blame otherwise attributable to favored subordinates by assuming “complete responsibility” even when they did not have a direct hand in what went wrong. As a general rule, when blame is allocated, it is those who are or become politically vulnerable or expendable, who become “patsies,” who get “set up” or “hung out to dry” and become blamable.

  • When the CEO of Covenant Corporation took office, he wanted to rid his capital accounts of all problematic financial drags. The corporation had been operating a storage depot for natural gas that it bought, stored, and then resold. Some years before the energy crisis, the company had entered into a long-term contract to supply gas to a buyer—call him Jones. At the time, this was a sound deal because it provided a steady market for a stably priced commodity. When gas prices soared, the corporation was still bound to deliver gas to Jones at 20 cents per unit instead of the going market price of $2. The CEO ordered one of his subordinates to get rid of this albatross as expeditiously as possible. This was done by selling the operation to another party—call him Grey—with the agreement that Grey would continue to meet the contractual obligations to Jones. In return for Grey’s assumption of these costly contracts, the corporation agreed to buy gas from Grey at grossly inflated prices to meet some of its own energy needs. In effect, the CEO transferred the drag on his capital accounts to the company’s operating expenses. This enabled him to project an aggressive, asset-reducing image to Wall Street. Several levels down the ladder, however, a new vice-president for a particular business in the chemical company found himself saddled with exorbitant operating costs when, during a reorganization, those plants purchasing gas from Grey at inflated prices came under his purview. The high costs helped to undercut the vice-president’s division’s earnings and thus to erode his position in the hierarchy. The origin of the situation did not matter. All that counted was that the vice-president’s division was steadily losing big money. In the end, he resigned to “pursue new opportunities.”

  • When blame-time comes, managers’ immediate reaction is, as they put it, to “CYA” or “cover your ass.” A high-ranking executive says: The one statement that will paralyze a room is when some guy in authority says: “Now I’m not interested in a witch hunt but…” When those words are uttered, the first instinct of people is to immediately hunker down and protect their own flanks. At the middle levels of the corporation, CYA memos proliferate during a crisis, as managers who sense jeopardy try to “get their views on the record” or stake out defensible ground against opposition or construct plausible alibis. In fact, it is said that one can gauge the seriousness of an issue or the importance of a decision and its potential dangers by the amount of paper it generates.

  • What does matter when things go wrong is agility and political connections. One manager explains the kind of agility that is necessary: The good manager is always aware and always wary. He knows that he has to be able to point the finger at somebody when things go wrong. And he knows that someone can point the finger at him at any time. There’s no accountability in the corporation. People don’t want to hear about that shit. What you hope is that no one is after your ass. . . . You have to have the political wherewithal to know you’re being set up. You have to be able to turn anything around and be able to point the finger at somebody else when they come after you. He goes on to link this personal skill with the invaluable inclusion in a network of powerful allies: . . . [And] you need a Godfather. They have to know you. . . . You have to remember that you only get to explain things away once. When things get screwed up, you get one chance. That’s why it’s important for everybody to be in bed with everybody else. And if they don’t like you from the start, you don’t have a chance. Because when things go wrong, what people do is sit down and say—without saying it in so many words—look, our jobs are on the line. Let’s make sure that it’s not us who gets nailed. Of course, a less agile individual or less powerful group might get nailed as a consequence, but managers do not concern themselves with this. The fundamental rule of corporate life is to protect oneself and, if possible, one’s own.

  • Some managers argue that outrunning mistakes is the real meaning of “being on the fast track,” the real key to managerial success. The same lawyer continues: In fact, one way of looking at success patterns in the corporation is that the people who are in high positions have never been in one place long enough for their problems to catch up with them. They outrun their mistakes. That’s why to be successful in a business organization, you have to move quickly. It is said that some managers move so quickly that “their feet never touch the ground.” These women and mostly men usually have a great deal of energy and “dynamism” that draw others to themselves; with their articulateness and personal magnetism, they can “motivate” others and provide a galvanizing “vision” of the future. They are said to be like “skyrockets” or “shooting stars” or “sparklers” that light up the night sky. All big organizations feed off this kind of renewing energy. Sometimes such men and women seem “anointed,” as managers say, predestined for great things. Of course, many of these stars eventually fizzle and return to the dark obscurity of the middle level crowd out of which they burst. Some, in fact, “disappear in the night” because top managers come to see them, or something about them, as too much of a threat to their own established prerogatives. Another common way of clouding a star’s luminosity is to assign him, with no fail-safe guarantees, to a trouble-prone area where big problems and perhaps big mistakes are hard to avoid. Those stars who are successful grasp more surely than others the nature of the complicated mirror game of corporate mobility—to move quickly but always to project an unthreatening and socially accommodating public face upward and, the point I want to stress here, to hit desired numbers without becoming involved in or associated with trouble.

  • One way to hit desired numbers is by squeezing the resources under one’s control, and American corporations generally provide structural inducements to encourage and facilitate this.

  • An upper-middle manager close to the situation explains: My own theory is that it was the plant itself that was let to run down-hill and that no matter what they had put in there, it wouldn’t have worked. Basically, [Noll] milked the plant and the plant would have run poorly in any event. He skimped on maintenance and concentrated on short-term profit. And he made money but he didn’t keep the plant in shape to do anything with it. . . . Some guys, like [Noll], go into plants and because they cut costs, tighten things up, they become heroes. But the plant is being milked. The question is, does he know he’s doing it? I’ll bet you he thinks he is a plant man who is frugal….It’s easy to make money in the short term; you just don’t spend money. And this is what happened…if the plant had been a well-oiled machine, a new program like this would have had a greater chance of success. The same manager goes on to stress that he has no objection to milking under certain conditions: [Milking] works well if [a guy] gets out in time. If a guy keeps moving, he can say, “Look, I ran this plant better than my predecessors.” And people have to concede that. A lot of people do that. Then you get the guy who takes his place and tries to run things right and he has to spend a lot of money. And people look at the guy who was there before and they say: “Well, old [Noll] ran the plant well and he didn’t have to spend any money like you’re claiming you do.” I don’t think there is anything wrong with milking a plant. As long as you know you’re milking it. As long as you know you’re going to run it for three or four years and then sell it to some unsuspecting fool. And you show him the papers on the plant and you don’t tell him what money you haven’t put back into the operation. But, one thing you don’t do. You don’t spend millions of dollars on new equipment if you’re milking a plant. That’s what happened in [Ohio].

  • Young tried to position his business for the future while continuing to meet short-run profit pressures. This is a difficult task since the institutional logic that the pressure for short-run results sets in motion, while lucrative for a time, undercuts the possibilities of lasting achievement, however reasonably planned. Within the institutional logic of the corporation, Young’s fatal error was pausing on the track, in the middle of the race, and thinking about the future. Instead of outrunning his mistakes, they overran him.

  • Without clear authoritative sanctions, moral viewpoints threaten others within an organization by making claims on them that might impede their ability to read the drift of social situations. As a result, independent morally evaluative judgments get subordinated to the social intricacies of the bureaucratic workplace. Notions of morality that one might hold and indeed practice outside the workplace—say, some variant of Judeo-Christian ethics—become irrelevant, as do less specifically religious points of principle, unless they mesh with organizational ideologies. Under certain conditions, such notions may even become dangerous. For the most part, then, they remain unarticulated lest one risk damaging crucial relationships with significant individuals or groups. Managers know that in the organization right and wrong get decided by those with enough clout to make their views stick.

  • Consequently, a principal managerial virtue and, in fact, managers’ most striking actual characteristic is an essential, pervasive, and thoroughgoing pragmatism. The social rather than the purely personal origins of this characteristic come into sharp focus in analyzing the following case of a man who tried to “blow the whistle” on practices in his organization, contrasted with other managers’ appraisals of what he did.

  • What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation. The corporate managers to whom I presented this case see Brady’s dilemma as devoid of moral or ethical content. In their view, the issues that Brady raises are, first of all, simply practical matters. His basic failing was, first, that he violated the fundamental rules of bureaucratic life. These are usually stated briefly as a series of admonitions. (1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do what your job requires, and you keep your mouth shut. Second, the managers that I interviewed feel that Brady had plenty of available legitimations to excuse or justify his not acting. Clearly, they feel, a great many other executives knew about the pension fund scam and did nothing; everybody, especially the top bosses, was playing the game. The problem fell into other people’s areas, was their responsibility, and therefore their problem. Why, then, worry about it? Besides, Brady had a number of ways out of the situation if he found it intolerable, including resigning. Moreover, whatever action he took would be insignificant anyway so why bother to act at all and jeopardize himself? Even a fool should have known that the CEO was not likely to take whatever blame resulted from the whole affair. Third, these managers see the violations that disturbed Brady—irregular payments, doctored invoices, shuffling numbers in accounts—as small potatoes indeed, commonplaces of corporate life. One cannot, for example, expect to do business abroad, particularly in the Third World, without recognizing that “one man’s bribe is another man’s commission.” As long as one does not try to extort an unfair market advantage but rather simply facilitates or speeds along already assigned duties, bribes are really the grease that makes the world work. Moreover, as managers see it, playing sleight of hand with the monetary value of inventories, post- or predating memoranda or invoices, tucking or squirreling large sums of money away to pull them out of one’s hat at an opportune moment are all part and parcel of managing in a large corporation where interpretations of performance, not necessarily performance itself, decide one’s fate. Furthermore, the whole point of the corporation is precisely to put other people’s money, rather than one’s own resources, at risk. Finally, the managers I interviewed feel that Brady’s biggest error was in insisting on acting according to a moral code, his professional ethos, that had simply no relevance to his organizational situation. “When the rubber hits the road,” they say, abstract ethical and moral principles are not of much use. Moreover, by insisting on his own personal moral purity, his feeling that if he did not expose things he himself would be drawn into a web of corruption, he was, they feel, being disingenuous; no one reaches his level of a hierarchy without being tainted. Even more to the point, Brady called others’ organizational morality, their acceptance of the moral ethos of bureaucracy, into question, made them uncomfortable, and eroded the fundamental trust and understanding that make cooperative managerial work possible.

  • Brady refused to recognize, in the view of the managers that I interviewed, that “truth” is socially defined, not absolute, and that therefore compromise, about anything and everything, is not moral defeat, as Brady seems to feel, but simply an inevitable fact of organizational life. They see this as the key reason why Brady’s bosses did him in. And they, too, would do him in without any qualms. Managers, they say, do not want evangelists working for them.

  • Bureaucracy transforms all moral issues into immediately practical concerns. A moral judgment based on a professional ethic makes little sense in a world where the etiquette of authority relationships and the necessity for protecting and covering for one’s boss, one’s network, and oneself supercede all other considerations and where nonaccountability for action is the norm. As a matter of survival, not to mention advancement, corporate managers have to keep their eye fixed not on abstract principles but on the social framework of their world and its requirements. Thus, they simply do not see most issues that confront them as moral concerns even when problems might be posed in moral terms by others. Managers’ essential pragmatism stems thus not only from the pervasive matter-of-factness engendered by the expertise so typical of bureaucracies, but from the priority that managers assign to the rules and social contexts of their bureaucratic world.

  • Principles and those who raise them do not generally fare well in back rooms. Managers are paid, and paid well, to bring rationality into irrational markets, to bring sometimes obdurate technology and always difficult people together to make money, to make difficult choices among unclear alternatives. Such uncompromising tasks demand continual compromises with conventional verities. Only those who make themselves alert to expediency can find their way through the ambiguities and dilemmas such compromises entail. In effect, one makes oneself alert to expediency by projecting outward the objectifying habit of mind learned in the course of self-rationalization. That is, the manager alert to expediency learns to appraise all situations and all other people as he comes to see himself—as an object, a commodity, something to be scrutinized, rearranged, tinkered with, packaged, advertised, promoted, and sold. The mastery of public faces described earlier is only the outward reflection of an internal mastery, a relentless subjection of the self to objective criteria to achieve success. Such self-abnegation, such stripping away of natural impulses, involves a self-objectification that in fact frames and paces the objectification of the world. To the extent that self-objectification is incomplete—and, of course, even the most thorough secular ascetic has uncharted areas of the self—to that extent do managers experience moral dilemmas in their grapplings with the world. In my view, this is the nub of the moral ethos of bureaucracy. Managers see this issue as a “trade-off” between principle and expediency

  • Bureaucracies encourage the rigorous self-rationalization necessary for alertness to expediency in a number of ways. First, bureaucracy facilitates an abstract rather than a concrete view of problems, an essential component of the nonaccountability discussed earlier. Typically, the abstractness of one’s viewpoint increases as one ascends the hierarchy of an organization. The pushing down of details and the growing social distance from the human consequences of one’s actions enable the development of an austere, uncluttered perspective. The viewpoints that managers at different levels have on workers and, in particular, on the social dislocation caused to workers by labor real-location decisions illustrates this point.

  • The sheer impersonality of the vast markets that corporations service also helps managers to achieve the distance and abstractness appropriate to and necessary for their roles.

  • A high-ranking official of Covenant Corporation muses about this problem, referring to the possible, though controverted, harm that one of Alchemy Inc.’s chemicals might produce: It gets hard. Now, suppose that the ozone depletion theory were correct and you knew that these specific fifty people were going to get skin cancer because you produced chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]. Well, there would be no question. You would just stop production. But suppose that you didn’t know the fifty people and it wasn’t at all clear that CFCs were at fault, or entirely at fault. What do you do then?

  • One retains the trust and confidence of others only by continually displaying the kind of reputation for discretion that leads to social acceptance in the first place. Despite its inevitable tensions, such ongoing probation has its comforts. It provides a clear set of goals, that is, maintaining social relationships, that greatly facilitates the drawing of lines. One comes to gauge that hard-won access to managerial circles takes precedence over fussing with abstract principles.

  • Tucker is not afraid of conflict; in fact, he sees himself as something of a maverick. For instance, he was once a plant manager in the Deep South and appointed a black man to supervise white women, an unpopular decision two decades ago. When the other foremen protested his choice, he threw them out of his office. Moreover, he tries to treat his subordinates forthrightly, firmly believing that one’s word is an important measure of a person. In a world, however, where actions are separated from consequences, where knowledge is fragmented and secreted, where private agreements are the only real way to fashion trust in the midst of ongoing competition and conflict, where relationships with trusted colleagues constitute one’s only real means both of defense and opportunity, and where, one knows, even coincidental association with a disaster can haunt one’s career years later, keeping silent and covering for oneself and for one’s fellows become not only possible but prudent, indeed virtuous, courses of action.

  • The manager alert to expediency sees his bureaucratic world through a lens that might seem blurred to those outside the corporation and even to some inside who are unable to rid themselves of encumbering perspectives from other areas of their lives. It is a lens, however, that enables him to bring into exact focus the rules and relationships of his immediate world. The alert manager pays whatever obeisance is required to the ideological idols of the moment, but he keeps his eye fixed on what has to be done to meet external and organizational exigencies. He wears the masks of bland genteel bonhomie with grace and humor but he comes to appreciate more fully than most people the wisdom of the old proverb “Tis an ill wind that blows nobody good,” and he learns that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. More generally, he comes to measure all relationships with others by a strict utilitarian calculus and, insofar as he dares, breaks friendships and alliances accordingly. He comes to see the secrecy at the core of managerial circles not as a suppression of dissent but an integral component of a compartmentalized world where one establishes faith with others precisely by proving that one can tolerate the ambiguities that expedient action and stone-faced silence impose. He comes to see also that the nonaccountability of the corporation is really a license to exert one’s own will and to improve one’s own fortunes by making the system work for oneself, as long as one does not overreach one’s power or station, and as long as one maintains crucial alliances and does not get caught.

  • The logical result of alertness to expediency is the elimination of any ethical lines at all. Sometimes the demands to do what has to be done, the pressures of exigencies that must be faced, make erasure of lines a tempting prospect. But as a practical matter, unless managers can act in complete secrecy, they know that they must be at least prepared to legitimate their actions both in their own organizational milieux and, depending on their positions, in the larger public arena. The truly ambitious manager must work therefore at attaining a certain dexterity with symbols.

  • The indirect and ambiguous linguistic frameworks that managers employ in public situations typify the symbolic complexity of the corporation. Generally speaking, managers’ public language is best characterized as a kind of provisional discourse, a tentative way of communicating that reflects the peculiarly chancy and fluid character of their world. Managers’ public language is, more than anything else, euphemistic. For instance, managers do not generally criticize or disagree with one another or with company policy openly and in public except at blame-time and sometimes not even then, since innuendo is often more effective than direct statements. The sanction against such criticism is so strong that it constitutes, in the view of many managers, a suppression of professional debate. This seems to be rooted in a number of the social conditions of managerial work already discussed. Most importantly, although some top managers consider abusiveness toward subordinates a prerogative of corporate success, managers’ acute sense of organizational contingency makes them speak gingerly to one another since the person one criticizes or argues with today could be one’s boss tomorrow. Even if such dramatic reversals of fortune were not at issue, managers know that the remembrance of offenses received, whether real or imagined, occupies a special nook in people’s cognitive maps and can undercut effective work, let alone potential alliances. Moreover, the crucial premium in the corporation on style includes an expectation of a certain finesse in handling people, a “sensitivity to others,” as it is called. As one manager says: “You just can’t push people around anymore.” Discreet suggestions, hints, and coded messages take the place of command; this, of course, places a premium on subordinates’ abilities to read correctly their bosses’ vaguely articulated or completely unstated wishes. One cannot even criticize one’s subordinates to one’s own superior without risking a negative evaluation of one’s own managerial judgment. Still further, the sheer difficulty of penetrating managerial circles other than one’s own and finding out what actually happened on a given issue, let alone being able to assess its organizational significance, makes the use of oblique language imperative, at least until one gets the lay of the land. This leads to the use of an elaborate linguistic code marked by emotional neutrality, especially in group settings. The code communicates the meaning one might wish to convey to other managers, but since it is devoid of any significant emotional sentiment—one might also say here strong conviction or forceful judgment—it can be reinterpreted should social relationships or attitudes change. Here, for example, are some typical phrases describing performance appraisals, always treacherous terrain, followed by their probable intended meaning. Or, to take an example of a different kind of euphemism, one “talks in circles,” that is, one masters the art of juxtaposing several sentences that contain implicit contradictions but that one makes seem related by one’s forcefulness or style of presentation. One can thus stake out a position on every side of an issue. Or one buries what one wants done in a string of vaguely related descriptive sentences that demand textual exegesis. For the most part, euphemistic language is not used with the intent to deceive. Managers past a certain point, as suggested earlier, are assumed to be “maze-bright” and able to “read between the lines” of a conversation or a memorandum and to distinguish accurately suggestions from directives, inquiries from investigations, and bluffs from threats. Managers who are “maze-dense,” like the manager at Weft Corporation who, though told somewhat indirectly that he was fired, did not realize his fate until the following day, might consider the oblique, elliptical quality of managerial language to skirt deceit. However, most often when managers use euphemistic language with each other (and it is important to remember that in private among trusted others their language can be very direct, colorful, and indeed earthy), its principal purpose is to communicate certain meanings within specific contexts with the implicit understanding that should the context change, a new, more appropriate meaning can be attached to the language already used. In this sense, the corporation is a place where people are not held to what they say because it is generally understood that their word is always provisional.

  • Euphemistic language also plays other important roles. Within the corporation, subordinates often have to protect their bosses’ “deniability” by concealing the specific dimensions of a problem in abstract, empty terms, thus maximizing the number of possible subsequent interpretations. The rule of thumb here seems to be that the more troublesome a problem, the more desiccated and vague the public language describing it should be. Of course, when a troublesome problem bursts into public controversy, euphemism becomes a crucial tool of those managers who have to face the public in some forum. The task here is to defuse public criticism and sometimes outrage with abstract unemotional characterizations of issues. Thus, to take only a few examples, in the textile industry, cotton dust becomes an “air-borne particulate” and byssinosis or brown lung a “symptom complex.” In the chemical industry, spewing highly toxic hydrogen fluoride into a neighboring community’s air is characterized as a “release beyond the fence line.” Such abstractions help obfuscate issues and thus reduce the likelihood of unwanted interference in one’s work from some public but it also allows managers themselves to grapple dispassionately with problems that can generate high emotions.

  • The higher one goes in the corporate world, the more essential is the mastery of provisional language. In fact, advancement beyond the upper-middle levels depends greatly on one’s ability to manipulate a whole variety of symbols without becoming tied to or identified with any of them. Managers’ use of certain kinds of expertise, namely that generated by management consultants of various sorts, themselves virtuosos in symbolic manipulation, aptly illustrates their peculiar symbolic skills. Except for the most narrowly defined technical areas, management consultants are perfect examples of what might be called ambiguous expertise—that is, their clients possess at least experientially the basic knowledge that management consultants claim. Moreover, because their expertise is therefore subject to continual negotiation, management consultants get drawn into the world of their clients and become subject to the political context and rules of that world.

  • One must keep in mind both the roots of the ethos of the management consulting profession and the ambiguous expertise consultants offer in order to grasp the meaning of consultants’ ideas and programs to managers.

  • The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues—that is, from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skills—the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority’s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be a problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be “worked on.” The relationship between the consultant and the group to be worked on may be described as a polite, arms-length embrace. The target group knows that whatever is revealed to the consultant will be passed back to a higher authority; the target group knows, too, that this information may be used in ways that the consultant never intended and further that the consultant is powerless to prevent such use. At the same time, one cannot refuse to cooperate with consultants when they are mandated by higher authority without running the risk of validating the original definition of being troublesome. The task, then, for the target group is to persuade the consultant that whatever problem might exist exists elsewhere in the organization or, failing that, to negotiate with the consultant in an oblique way some amelioristic program that will disrupt a given bailiwick as little as possible. From the consultant’s perspective, maintaining the stance of rational expert in such a situation becomes very difficult and the more contact the consultant has with the target group, the truer this becomes. No one likes to deal with people in trouble, at least on a regular sustained basis, but at the same time, consultants have to make a living too and this involves putting on programs to solve problems defined by others. The temptation to accept the target group’s redefinition of the trouble at issue is, therefore, always great if that redefinition is plausible and salable to the authority who hired the consultant. Of course, the “real trouble” in any organization may lie completely apart from the authority’s definition of the situation or the target group’s redefinition.

  • Sometimes the issues that consultants are retained to address are so benign on their face that no group is likely to be threatened by their presence. However, even benign programs—like special training sessions for executives or promising young managers—may be seen to have hidden organizational functions, usually in the area of prestige allocation. In any event, whatever the nature of the consultant’s work, it cannot become institutionalized without a continuing commitment from top management. When top management ceases to pay attention to a program, no matter how much time, effort, and money has been poured into it, the program withers and dies. There is scarcely much mystery to this. The whole bureaucratic structure of big corporations fosters and demands attentiveness to top management’s whims. Both managers and their consultants must keep up with changing whims. One might ask, of course, why top managers are unable or unwilling to sustain long-term interest in programs that they themselves initiate. Once again, the clue lies in the social structure of corporations. There is a premium in the higher circles of management on seeming fresh, dynamic, innovative, and up-to-date. In their social minglings and shoptalk with one another, particularly with their opposite numbers in other large companies, say, at the Business Roundtable, at high-level conferences at prestigious business schools, at summer galas in the Hamptons, or at the Super Bowl, the biggest business extravaganza of all, executives need to seem abreast of the latest trends in managerial know-how. No one wants to appear stodgy before one’s peers nor to have one’s firm defined in managerial networks, and perhaps thence to Wall Street, as “slow on the uptake.” Executives trade ideas and schemes and judge the efficacy of consultant programs not by any detached critical standards but by what is socially acceptable, desirable, and, perhaps most important, current in their circles. There is a dialectical process at work here. The need of executives for fresh approaches fuels the large and growing industry of consultants and other managerial sages who write books and articles and develop new programs to “aid management,” that is, get the business of well-placed managers. This burgeoning industry in turn fuels executive anxiety with a never-ending barrage of newly packaged schemes, all highly rational, most amelioristic, and the great majority making operational some social science insight. Despite their fresh appearances, certain themes recur constantly in the programs offered by consultants. Perhaps the most common are how to sharpen decision making, how to restructure organizations for greater efficiency, how to improve productivity, how to recognize trouble spots in an organization, how to communicate effectively, how to humanize the workplace, and how to raise morale. The language that consultants use to describe their programs has its own interest, marked as it is by the peculiar combination of appeals to a solid scientific basis, promises of organizational betterment, vague, abstract lingo, and upbeat exhortation. For instance, a leading management consultant firm offers a “unique series of workshops designed for leaders in organizations experiencing significant challenge and change.” The basis for these is “extensive research into the management styles and management structures required to increase organizational competitiveness.” In addition to helping participating managers “develop a dynamic concept of management or leadership,” the workshop will “identify the difference between being a problem solver and managing or leading others in opportunity-seeking and problem solving.” It will as well “utilize personal, useful feedback on their style” to “develop action plans that allow them to have a greater positive impact on others and their organization.” A higher level version of the same workshop for an “executive management team” promises a “research-based orientation” to “getting competitive.” This orientation “can be tailored to the organization’s unique situation” through a series of pre-interviews with participants that form “the basis for a ‘real time’ case which the executive team works on.” Pre-interviews are a crucial strategy in helping the consultant ascertain just what the defined troubles of an organization are and who does the defining. The contentless quality of the language used here is related to this strategy; the lack of specificity precludes hasty judgments by prospective clients about the range or limits of a consultant’s expertise and implicitly promises nearly infinite adaptability. Other consultants have promoted the importance of “corporate cultures,” that is, the idea that specific values, beliefs, rites, and rituals at the core of particular organizations determine social behavior in them. Through a mastery of stagecraft and an understanding of the “hidden hierarchy”— the real “cultural network” of “spies, storytellers, priests, whisperers, [and] cabals”—gained through a kind of instant ethnography, “symbolic managers” can dominate their situation and provide effective leadership.

  • Another approach recycles ideologies and slogans from segments of the 1960s New Left, all tailored for the executive suite. The concerns here are with “empowerment,” “energizing the grass roots,” learning “power skills,” and becoming “corporate entrepreneurs.”

  • In reading such materials, one can discern some basic rules that seem to undergird most of the genre of business consultant writing and program presentation. These rules also tell us something about the managerial audience for such writing. The rules seem to be: (1) suppress all irony, ambiguity, and complexity and assert only the most obvious and literal meanings of any phenomenon; (2) ignore all theoretical issues unless they can be encapsulated into a neat schematic form easily remembered, “operationalized,” and preferably diagrammed; (3) always stress the bright side of things, inflating, say, all efforts for change, whether major or minor, into “revolutionary” action; downplay the gloomy, troublesome, crass, or seamy aspects of big organizational life or, better, show managers how to exploit them to their own advantage; (4) provide a step-by-step program tied, of course, to one’s own path-breaking research, that promises to unlock the secrets of organizations; and (5) end with a vision of the future that makes one’s book, program, or consulting services indispensable.

  • The consultant encounters particular difficulties when he becomes aware that the “real issues” facing him are the political and social structures of a corporation rather than the problem defined for him. Of course, in such cases one may assume that executives are fully aware of the real issues. Most likely, executives are using the consultant to: legitimate already desired unpleasant changes, such as reorganizations; throw rival networks of executives off the track of one’s real strategy by diverting resources to marginal programs; undercut consultants employed by other executive groups by establishing what might be called counterplausibility; or advance, as already suggested, a personal or organizational image of being up-to-date, with-it, and avant-garde. The consultant who perceives such discrepancies has to devise his own strategies for handling them. Some of these include: rejecting the assignment altogether; accepting the problem as defined and confining oneself to it for the sake of future contracts even though one knows that any action will be inefficacious; or accepting the assignment but trying to persuade the client to address the underlying social and political issues, that is, redefining the problem. The consultant’s own strategy is limited by the constraint that he present his findings according to a certain etiquette, one that has deep roots in the history of the profession—that is, as a rational, objective, scientific judgment that will improve the organization. The consultant’s claim to expertise and legitimacy rests on this. As it happens, even if the consultant sees that the real issues are political and social ones and is willing to address them, this emphasis on a pragmatic rational objectivity often produces a somewhat stultifying reification of abstract concepts rather than a detailed explanation of the intricacies of political networks that might lay bare the actual troubles of an organization. But then, managers need and desire the mask of objectivity to cover the capriciousness and arbitrariness of corporate life; consultants want to maintain their occupational self-image as experts. Each group fuels the other’s needs and self-images in an occupational drama where the needs of organizations get subordinated to the maintenance of professional identities.

  • The kind of “flexibility” that is required to maintain such stances can be confusing even to those in inner management circles.

  • He goes on to characterize the system more fully and what it takes to succeed within it: It’s the ability to play this system that determines whether you will rise….And part of the adeptness [required] is determined by how much it bothers people. One thing you have to be able to do is to play the game, but you can’t be disturbed by the game. What’s the game? It’s bringing troops home from Vietnam and declaring peace with honor. It’s saying one thing and meaning another. It’s characterizing the reality of a situation with any description that is necessary to make that situation more palatable to some group that matters. It means that you have to come up with a culturally accepted verbalization to explain why you are not doing what you are doing….[Or] you say that we had to do what we did because it was inevitable; or because the guys at the [regulatory] agencies were dumb; [you] say we won when we really lost; [you] say we saved money when we squandered it; [you] say something’s safe when it’s potentially or actually dangerous….Everyone knows that it’s bullshit, but it’s accepted. This is the game. He points out how a game can suddenly change: Now what upsets the whole game is when some executive on high says: “Well, we just can’t accept such and such a loss,” or whatever. That throws the whole game into chaos at the middle levels because it disrupts and changes all the rules of the game. But if the guys on high do call a halt to some game, it’s not because they’re bothered by the game itself but only by the direction a particular game is taking which threatens some interest of their own. In this view, top executives go home with the ball when they think they are going to lose. In addition, then, to the characteristics described earlier, it seems that a prerequisite for big success in the corporation is a certain adeptness at inconsistency.

  • In the corporate world, one may observe many different kinds of inconsistency among managers. The segmented, fragmented, and hierarchical structure of bureaucratic work lends itself more than other kinds of work situations to the manufacture of multiple ideologies and mythologies. These include not only the attempts of individuals to make sense of their world and lobby for their own positions with others, but also the semi-official viewpoints disseminated through the impressive communications apparatus common to all bureaucracies.

  • The need for symbolic dexterity, particularly the ability to fashion, quickly and readily, appropriate legitimations for what must be done, intensifies as one ascends the corporate ladder. Since the success of large commercial bureaucracies depends to a great extent on the goodwill of the consuming public, ambitious managers recognize that great organizational premiums are placed on the ability to explain expedient action convincingly. Public opinion, of course, constitutes one of the only effective checks on the bureaucratic impulse to translate all moral issues into practical concerns. Managers not only face the highly specific and usually ideological standpoints of one or another “special-interest” group but, even more fearsome, the vague, ill-formed, diffuse, highly volatile, and often irrational public opinion that is both the target of special-interest groups and the lifeblood of the news media. Those imbued with the bureaucratic ethos thus make every effort to mold public opinion to allow the continued uninterrupted operation of business. Moreover, since public opinion inevitably affects to some extent managers’ own conceptions of their work and of themselves, public goodwill, even that which managers themselves create, becomes an important part of managers’ own valued self-images. In this sense, both moral issues and social identities become issues of public relations.

  • Public relations serves many different functions, some of them overlapping. Among the most important are: the systematic promotion of institutional goals, products, images, and ideologies that is colloquially called “hype,” a word probably derived from hyperbole or, perhaps, from hypodermic; the direct or, more often, indirect lobbying of legislators, regulators, special publics, or the public at large to influence the course of legislation; the creation, through a whole variety of techniques, like matchmaking money with art or social science, of a favorable awareness of a corporation to provide a sense of public importance to otherwise anonymous millionaires; and the manufacture and promulgation of official versions of reality or of benign public images that smooth the way for the attainment of corporate goals or, in special circumstances, that help erase the taint of some social stigma affixed to a corporation. In short, the goal is to get one’s story out to important publics. In such ways, managers can at least try to shape and control the main dimensions of public opinion in an unsettled social order where values, leadership, and even the direction of the society itself often seem up for grabs. This attempt to establish some sort of rationality and predictability over potentially tumultuous public opinion parallels exactly the corporate rationalization of the workplace itself through the techniques of scientific management and the rationalization of employee relationships through the human relations movement and its latter-day progeny. Most corporations try to get their stories out on a regular sustained basis, intensifying their efforts, of course, during crisis periods. For the most part, corporations allot this work to special practitioners of public relations within the firm who consult regularly with the highest officials of the organization. These practitioners, and quite often the highest officials themselves, also employ public relations specialists in agencies. With some important differences that I shall discuss later, the views of public relations specialists both in corporations and in agencies correspond closely with those of corporate executives and managers, though typically the outlook of specialists is more detached. In particular, public relations work gives its specialists a fine appreciation of how the drama of social reality is constructed because they themselves are usually the playwrights and the stage directors. Public relations specialists may then be considered sophisticated proxies for those corporate managers sensitive to public opinion. Their work, which consists essentially of creating and disseminating various ideologies, the ethics that they fashion, and in particular the basic habit of mind that underpins all of their efforts, provide some insight into how moral issues get translated into issues of public relations.

  • From the modern beginnings of their occupation, men and women in public relations have been acutely aware that social reality and social reputations are not given but made.

  • Wish-news is a type of publicity that nearly always breaks on the front page. It is news so thrilling, melodramatic and heart-gripping that every city editor wishes it were true. There was a time when publicity men would concoct this kind of news in dark corners for fear of being exposed. Today some tabloids don’t wait for publicity men to concoct it. They make it up themselves.

  • Publicity is the nervous system of the world. Through the network of press, radio, film and lights, a thought can be flashed around the world the instant it is conceived. And through this same highly sensitive, swift and efficient mechanism it is possible for fifty people in a metropolis like New York to dictate the customs, trends, thoughts, fads and opinions of an entire nation of a hundred and twenty million people. In this view, “the mass is always a magnified reflection of some individual.”

  • Take apart the average individual, dissect his mind, his manner, his attitudes and you will find that every idea, every major habit and trend in his makeup is a reflection of the fifty outstanding personalities of the day.

  • In the world of public relations, there is no such thing as a notion of truth; there are only stories, perspectives, or opinions. One works, of course, with “facts,” that is, selected empirically verifiable statements about the world. But as long as a story is factual, it does not matter if it is “true.” One can feel free to arrange these facts in a variety of ways and to put any interpretation on them that suits a client’s objectives. Interpretations and judgments are always completely relative. The only canons binding this process of interpretation are those of credibility or, more exactly, of plausibility. If an interpretation of facts, a story, is taken as plausible by a targeted audience, it is just as good as “true” in any philosophical sense, indeed better since it furthers the accomplishment of an immediate goal. Insofar as it has any meaning at all, truth is what is perceived. Creating the impression of truth displaces the search for truth.  
  • Avoiding undue complexities, one learns to craft the little stories that will engineer at least acquiescence if not consent and allow a client’s operations to proceed without undue interruption. After all, most people’s understanding of the world consists precisely of such little stories, pieced together or accepted outright from a myriad of other constructions of reality.

  • In reality, news is entertainment. And, despite the public’s acceptance of journalistic ideologies, most of the public watch or read news not to be informed or to learn the “truth,” but precisely to be entertained. There is no intrinsic reason, therefore, why the constructions of reality by public relations specialists should be thought of as any different from those of any group in the business of telling stories to the public. Everyone is telling stories and everyone has a story to tell. Public relations men and women are simply storytellers with a purpose in the free market of ideas, advocates of a certain point of view in the court of public opinion. Since any notion of truth is irrelevant or refers at best to what is perceived, persuasion of various sorts becomes everything.

  • Public relations work both demands and fosters in its practitioners a characteristic occupational virtue, that is, a highly self-conscious, reflexive ability to “doublethink,” to borrow Orwell’s term, to hold in one’s mind and be able to voice if necessary completely contradictory versions of reality. Successful doublethinking demands, first, a talent for the intricate casuistry needed to broker whatever differences may exist between one’s sense of self and the exigencies of immediate situations and, second, the ability to externalize one’s casuistic ability to help others invent better reasons for doing what has to be done. One should note that this occupational virtue is a highly refined version of the adeptness at inconsistency that marks the symbolic dexterity of successful corporate managers and to the extent that corporate managers rely on public relations practitioners, it is one seedbed of that adeptness.

  • I should reiterate that, because of the occupational role structure that binds them together, the most important audience and customer for public relations are managers themselves. The premium on alertness to expediency demands, of course, an ability and readiness to doublethink one’s way through the contradictory irrationalities of everyday problems. But standing at the middle of events grappling with exigencies, especially in a hierarchical milieu that requires authorities to display sincere conviction in their actions, seems to foster at least a kind of half-belief, and sometimes more, in one’s efforts to do what has to be done. In helping managers invent better reasons for expedient action, public relations counselors, and less directly the techniques and the casuistic habit of mind they institutionalize in management circles, reduce the distance managers experience between requisite moral flexibility and the occupationally induced urge to believe sincerely in the value of one’s own actions. The central institutional mechanism in managerial circles for this process, from the middle levels to the very top of the corporation, is what might be called a rehearsal.

  • Rehearsals mark all of social life. I shall focus here only on a special kind of rehearsal, that is, the rehearsal of legitimations for what has to be done. Within their own organizational circles, managers regularly rehearse their explanations and accounts for actions decided upon. On one hand, such rehearsals may prepare one principally for the ongoing internal organizational drama. In this case, rehearsals often focus on developing “defensible” rationales for action which can, of course, assume widely varying forms depending on which criteria and ideologies hold sway in an organization at a particular time. Alternatively, rehearsals may be geared to honing rationales for the broader extra-organizational audiences that managers at certain levels and in particular positions must sometimes address. But whether rehearsals of legitimation are designed to prepare managers for internal or external audiences, they typically go through a three-stage sequence. First, managers cast around a variety of perspectives in order to “cover all the bases” and see the situation at hand from many angles of vision. In this stage, there is little formality and often a fair amount of levity, usually in the form of parody by offering, for instance, burlesque rationales for action with mock seriousness. Certain viewpoints fall of their own weight, others get discarded as wholly implausible, and still others are entertained for long periods but in a provisional manner. The second stage of such a rehearsal begins when it becomes clear, often but not always by the edict of the presiding authority, that certain explanations rather than others should be the point of focus. Given managers’ sensitivity to interactional and verbal cues, particularly from bosses, the shift to a more focused discussion is not usually precipitous or forced. Rather, one or more possible rationales become subject to a kind of devil’s advocacy in which potential weaknesses of arguments are explored. The manner of discussion shifts during this stage toward a more formal etiquette of debate. One manager will say, for instance, “Well, we could say that…,” elaborating a set of reasons for action. Another manager will counter, “But, if you say that, it could be argued that . . . Why not put it this way…?” And still another will say, “But if we say that, how do we explain…?” Except during a precipitous crisis, this second stage of a rehearsal can last for long periods and extend over many meetings until viewpoints begin to crystallize. The final stage of a rehearsal of legitimations begins, almost imperceptibly, when a certain viewpoint seems convincing to a circle and begins to assume coherent and elaborate form. Sometimes an individual manager will articulate a rationale in a manner that suddenly “puts all the pieces together”; sometimes a public relations counselor assumes this interactive symbolic role. However, the decisive moment in the third stage of a rehearsal and, in fact, the point of the whole process comes when a managerial circle, or key members of it, decide that a certain rationale “is the way to go,” one with which they “feel comfortable.” Here morality becomes one’s personal comfort vis-à-vis the anticipated views of others. The measure of that comfort becomes a confidence in the casuistry necessary to persuade others that one’s stories are plausible and one’s choices reasonable. Such anticipatory confrontations with the viewpoints of certain publics make rehearsals, on one hand, a forum for a kind of accountability. On the other, in helping managers master the public relations technique of playing with the magic lantern, rehearsals also encourage the most subtle form of hype, namely convincing oneself of one’s own rectitude.

  • The probationary crucibles that managers face in their bureaucratic milieux are much more ambiguous and demanding. Instead of relatively stable councils of elders who guard doctrine and dictate behavioral norms, the basic framework of managerial work is formed by structures of personalized authority in formally impersonal contexts, fealty with bosses and patrons, and alliances shaped through networks, coteries, cliques, and work groups that struggle through hard times together. It is always subject to upheaval and the consequent formation of new ties and alliances. Each circle of affiliation in this world, while it lasts, develops its own criteria of admission, its own standards of trustworthiness, its own gauges of emotional comfort, and even its own etiquette, all within the general structure and ethos of a particular corporation. The dominant clique in a hierarchy at any given time establishes the general tone for other groups.

  • Winning sometimes requires the willingness to move decisively against others, even though this might mean undermining their organizational careers. These may be neighbors on the same block, members of the same religious communion, longtime work colleagues, or, more rarely, members of the same club. They may be good, even excellent, employees. In short, managerial effectiveness and others’ perceptions of one’s leadership depend on the willingness to battle for the prestige that comes from dominance and to make whatever moral accommodations such struggles demand. In the work world, those who adhere either to secular democratic precepts as guides rather than guises or, even more, to an ethic of brotherly love, run the risk of faltering in those struggles. But those who abandon the ethics of caritas and hone themselves to do what has to be done must accept the peculiar emotional aridity that is one price of organizational striving and, especially, of victory.

  • A system of deal making places a premium on maximizing one’s organizational leverage in order to make claims on those with power to dispense perquisites. In such a system, “big numbers” may help reduce organizational vulnerability but do not necessarily help maximize leverage. Rather, the social factors that bind managers to one another, whether in conflict or in harmony, are the chief sources of deals. Such a system is thus principally characterized by the exchange of personal favors and the dispensation of patronage to seal the alliances that give one “clout”; by the systematic collection of information damaging to others and particularly about deals struck and favors won in order to argue more effectively the propriety and legitimacy of one’s own claims; and, on the part of those in power, by pervasive secrecy, called confidentiality, that attempts to cordon off the knowledge of deals already made lest the demands on the system escalate unduly. It is worth noting that most middle managers’ general detestation of affirmative action programs, apart from their resentment at yet another wild card in the corporate deck and at being asked to bear cheerfully the burdens of others’ neglect and mistakes, is rooted in the perception that such arrangements symbolically legitimate the perceived inequities of their world, cloaking simply a new kind of expedient favoritism with self-righteous ideologies. Seen from this perspective, the corporation resembles for many a jerry-built structure, like a boardwalk erected on pilings of different heights, that, when viewed from a distance over sandy stretches in baking summer heat, shimmers rickety and swaying to the eye.

  • Managers often feel that, however genuine it may be, altruism is a motive that is always denied them by others. To complicate matters still further, the necessary self-promotional work of presenting private goals as public goods, or the self-defensive work within the corporation of presenting public goods as hardheaded business decisions, or managers’ knowledge that bureaucracy insulates them from the real consequences of their actual choices, often make their protestations of socially responsible actions suspect even to themselves. This context helps one understand why many managers feel, particularly as they grow older, that much of the actual work of management is senseless. Of course, big victories, pleasing deals, the seizure of capricious opportunities to accomplish something one thinks is worthwhile, the intrinsic pleasure, when it occurs, of harmonious orchestration, and, with personal success, the opportunity for leading roles in philanthropic, artistic, or social organizations of various sorts, trusteeships at elite colleges and universities, directorships in other corporations and the concomitant opportunity to mingle with other powerful peers, and the respectability that money and status afford, all punctuate and mitigate such senselessness. But the anonymity that is the lot of most corporate managers exacerbates it. Moreover, the successful propagation of professional ideologies of service or truth-seeking by occupations like medicine or the professoriate often make businessmen view their own attention to the material world as base or crass.

  • Yet attention to the material world can anchor one’s sense of self. In fact, the problem of the senselessness of managerial work increases as the work itself becomes more abstract, typically as one advances. With increasing seniority, one retreats from concrete tasks, say, overseeing the manufacture of sheets or shirting material or running the production of hydrofluoric acid. One thus loses immediate connections to tangible human or industrial needs. For those who came up through the plants, one also loses regular contact with the renewing drama of industrial work.

  • A plant manager at one of Alchemy’s largest and most troublesome operations, a man who regularly goes in at all hours “to fight the dragons,” tells how often he does not even wait for trouble: Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the plant. And if I can’t get back to sleep, I’ll slip out of bed and walk over to the plant and just walk around the machinery and talk to the guys. I love the smell of the oil and the grease and the sound of the machines. For me, that’s what life is all about. But to advance, one must leave behind such a comforting concreteness, indeed the visible enactment of one’s rational schemes, where materials, labor, and machinery are brought together to produce value.

  • One leaves behind as well the technical knowledge or scientific expertise of one’s younger years, lore now more suited for the narrower roles of technicians or junior managers. One must, in fact, put distance between oneself and technical details of every sort or risk the inevitable entrapment of the particular. Salesmen, too, must leave their bags and regular customers and long boisterous evenings that seal measurable deals behind them and turn to marketing strategies. Work becomes more ambiguous, directed as it is toward maneuvering money, symbols, organizational structures, and especially people. The CEO at Weft Corporation, it is said, “doesn’t know a loom from a car.” And the higher one goes, the more managers find that “the essence of managerial work is cronyism, covering your ass, [and] pyramiding to protect your buddies.”

  • The more abstract work becomes, that is, the less one actually does or oversees concrete tasks, the greater the likelihood that one’s rational efforts to improve an organization will meet with and even beget various kinds of irrationality.

  • For most managers, especially for those who are ambitious, the real meaning of work—the basis of social identity and valued self-image—becomes keeping one’s eye on the main chance, maintaining and furthering one’s own position and career. This task requires, of course, unrelenting attentiveness to the social intricacies of one’s organization. One gains dominance or fails depending on one’s access to key managerial circles where prestige is gauged precisely by the relationships that one establishes with powerful managers and by the demonstrated favor such relationships bring. Even beyond their practical and crucial importance in furthering careers, the social psychological lure of entrance into such select groups is, of course, powerful and layers the drive to get ahead with complicated overtones. Such acceptance means, variously, no longer being relegated to marginality; having one’s voice heard and opinion count in matters small and weighty; experiencing the peculiar bonds with one’s fellows produced by shared secrecy, hard decisions and hard times, a sense of shared emotional aridity, and competition with rival cliques; penetrating the many layers of consciousness in the corporation that baffle outsiders and marginal managers alike; and being able to dispense at times, usually in the heat of battle and only within one’s tried and trusted circle, with the gentlemanly politesse and requisite public advocacy of high-minded beliefs and, always with relief and sometimes with comic vulgarity, to get down to brass tacks. What one manager calls “our surrender of ourselves to groups” has its emotional touchstone in the sense of professional intimacy that acceptance into a managerial circle affords. Group intimacy, especially with powerful others, rewards and seals the selfdirected transformation of self that makes one come to accept the ethos of an organization as one’s own. But the process is rarely simple, precisely because such acceptance depends on developing and maintaining personal relationships with powerful others. Mastering the subtle but necessary arts of deference without seeming to be deferential, of “brown nosing” without fawning, of simultaneous self-promotion and self-effacement, and occasionally of the outright self-abasement that such relationships require is a taxing endeavor that demands continual compromises with conventional and popular notions of integrity. Only those with an inexhaustible capacity for self-rationalization, fueled by boundless ambition, can escape the discomfort such compromises produce.

Stay up to date with my latest posts/tweets here: @manas_saloi