What philosophy has to say about organizational behavior


Most people who do research in Organizational Behavior use a statistics-based scientific method to induce laws from facts. The starting point to their research is what they observe today and from there, they thrive to understand the way people behave in organizations but few have taken a philosophical approach to the subject. Ghislain Deslandes is one of those. In his Essay on the Philosophical Data of Management, Deslandes observes that the understanding of organizational behavior  has shifted over the course of history, along with visions of the nature of Man.

Etymologically, the word management comes from the Italian “maneggiare” which means “to conduct”. Organizations – and therefore the need to manage them – have existed for as long as humans have been known to live in society. In Ancient Greek, thinkers like Xenophon considered management not as a science but as an ethical lifestyle: management – or the conduct of one’s wealth – did not include efficiency and profit-making in its core preocupations but rather emphasized how to make and spend one’s wealth in a morally and socially responsible way. Ethics therefore used to be a central preoccupation of organizational behavior.

In the first part of the 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s vision of work became the dominant philosophical paradigm in most organizations around the world. Taylor’s ideas were based on the fact that man was lazy; he saw the workforce as a mere resource and not as individuals with ambitions, ideas, or specific talents. Management thus used to be the science of getting workers to work on specific tasks repeated endlessly in the most efficient way possible; the “one best way”. Taylor developed a very particular vision of man studied in the context of organization, a man Amartya Sen called “homo economicus”. The problem with this conception is that it reduces man to some characteristics only: this phantasized man is completely rational, narrowly self-interested and his only ethic principle is “to do good is to do what my boss tells me to do”.

Does the homo economicus exist in organizations?

Does the homo economicus exist in organizations?

Taylorist management is still alive today: it can be found in fast-food chains or in some textile manufacturing factories. Organizational theorist could thus be tempted to keep studying workers as “homo economici”. However, if we only study man as an “homo economicus”, then we ignore things that are not linked to actual production but that still go on in organizations such as interest conflicts, moral harassment or corruption. However, it is important to study this and therefore it is capital to study man in the organizational context like a full fledged human being and not a simple homo economicus. Man is more than a resource or a robot, and managers must take that into account.

More than any statistically-proven law or rule of management, I believe that this philosophical conviction should be the reason why management should be ethical. Indeed if we consider that man is not a robot, then we understand that managing is not about coming up with a set of practical guidelines but about working with individuals and questioning orders from the hierarchy when they reduce an organization’s role to profit-making. Many other things matter in organizations for the simple reason that are parts of societies that are composed of men and women who are far from being “homo economici”.

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