Is being critical the same as being negative, passive or not constructive?

What if being critical is to be useful to better understand problems, more independent thinking & to innovate?.

In the Organizational domain, this is what Critical Management Studies (CMS) could help us with. Originally born in the UK, they are starting to gain ground in the Management world that it is so packed with gurus, fad & quick recipes.

More specifically, CMS are a framework of studies, comprising many theoretical threads, intended to give a more realistic and critical outlook of Management and Organizations. They very much focus on exposing power relations, so common within organizations, but quite often a not talked about because talking about power it is considered “politically incorrect”.

Talking about power relations means talking about dependency among organization and its members (also among members themselves) mediated by

  • Ideology and interests of the organization and its members,
  • Identities of members

This last bit (identities) is much less spoken about  (it is one of the top contributions from CMS), but it is really a fundamental change to think about power.  Power relations in the workplace frequently materialize in the roles and identities that we all play at work. For CMS poststructuralist orientations power constitute us all in specific ways to think, feel & behave about ourselves and others. This implies changing our power vision from something external to something internal (inside all of us) a major contribution by Michel Foucault. More about that below.

A little bit more practical

CMS are usually charged of being abstract and theoretical (quite rightly), so let’s try to “land” some important issues, using a real case: a few months ago when we organized a round table to introduce the topic, a woman in the public sent us an email questioning its usefulness (we honestly thank for her interest!) that we are going to summarize in order to better understand what CMS proposals are about. Her main reasoning was:

1. General charges to “the system” are useless because of lack of accountability (whose fault? answer: the system), and generates a discourse that leaves the subject as a victim and it is a dead end. Unless you decide to take up arms to implement a new system (what system?) or arrange an atomic bombing and end the current “system”, hoping that cockroaches take over overnight.

2. Until recently, workers complained of being alienated; in the 80s with the commitment boom, you now say they feel exploited … why?, why if it happens to be voluntary & desired engagement?. Theories are converging to the idea that if employees win, company wins. Is that what CMS find so annoying?.

3. Finally, what do you propose?, any model, any clue, any ideas other than the absolute demonization of work in the best tradition of biblical expulsion from paradise? Work provides a sense of contribution to society, money, social status, personal accomplishment (though not always), learning, social relationships … and countless blessings current unemployed could list, apart from enabling the necessary supermarket visits.

This is an elaborated excerpt of our response:

While CMS can be used for many things (and there are many conflicts within CMS, a framework far from having a monolithic view), CMS promote alternative views of organizations that can enable more innovative action. Using Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, if we can use several metaphors to look at organizations: e.g. brains, machines, flux and transformation, as political systems, as cultures, as psychic prisons, as system of dominations, as organisms (we could safely agree that more views/metaphors are possible), maybe the key point is that we tend to think using one/few metaphors ONLY. This frames our vision in specific ways, “enabling but also limiting us” since some metaphors are rarely used: i.e. organizations as political systems, as psychic prisons, as domination systems.

So CMS’ vision about mainstream Management is that it underplays visions linked with politics (and ethical dilemmas) inside organizations. Mainstream Management usually is limited to finding the one best way or best practices to manage people.. etc.. When mainstream tend to argue that WIN-WIN between organization/workers is perfectly possible, CMS state that things tend to be a little bit more complicated than a WIN-WIN scenario and that real organizations are packed with people being subordinated by short term objectives (not really questioned) where human side is far from central.

From a theoretical point of view, CMS argue that there are no neutral spaces and that any social relationship (of course also the manager-employee relationship) needs to incorporate politics (interests, attempts to influence, etc. , conscious or not …) if it wants to account for real life. CMS tries to make that explicit and visible!. Politics/Power are not necessarily bad (in fact they are unavoidable) and we need to change our views about social relationships. We need a better recognition of power relations – the influences, interests, etc. in essence the presence of politics in Organizations. Recognizing this could mean potential new avenues for implementing sustainable change.

More specifically, within CMS, the poststructuralist view (one of the most interesting) would state that it is not so that much about “workers exploitation”, as if there were “exploiters” and “exploited” (bad guys, good ones); but that we all are somehow exploiters and exploited (we are all embedded in political relations and domination). It is not about being “anti-system” or considering capitalism as the devil. Thanks to capitalism we got rid of “patriarchal” and “feudal” relations and we generated a spiral of innovation that produced even Smartphone!.

CMS Poststructuralist view helps us to better understand management as increasingly the management of identities (and buying in values, aspirations, etc …nothing too different from corporate culture waves that spread in the 80s; though CMS drive them to next level to frame them in power terms).

What is wrong with buying in?  What is the use of CMS?

Buying in values, aspirations (meanings, if you want) can be fine if made in an open context. It really comes down to the available options:  do I really have alternatives?. If I don’t have real/workable alternatives, how can i distinguish true/voluntary engagement from avoiding cognitive dissonance/protecting myself because no other options are available?. If we don’t really have alternatives, maybe what are framed as free decisions might not be such.

CMS are not proposing a specific model (they are not practical in that sense), but a new way of look a things.  Being critical can be positve and constructive and can bring a better understanding, more mental autonomy, innovation … (along with challenging status-quo, as all relevant changes usually do).

Certainly CMS could be used in many ways. Some could hide behind CMS just to criticize the system (and use it as an excuse that you cannot change anything). In our case we seek to connect public/structural issues with the personal (individual) worries that frequently tend to appear disconnected. More specifically, we are currently using CMS to better understand work intensification dynamics and its impact on health. We will be posting about work intensification in the future, but basically we mean the growing trend to put, not more hours, but more effort in those hours.

This is a six-minute video to help us understand relations between power and identities, one of the central tenets of CMS (IN SPANISH):

Our intention was being practical (not sure to have delivered) but for those interested, theory reigns in many good books, just to name a few: the book that gave its name to Critical Management Studies (ed. Alvesson & Willmott) and two more recent books with more disseminating intention: a Handbook,, for those interested in reviewing CMS broad reaching and a much more friendly book, intended for an introductory course in Organizational Behaviour.

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