Managerialist Storytelling

David M. Boje
July 1, 1999; Updated April, 2002

Managerialist is defined as looking at organizational behavior and theory from exclusive point of view of managers, the functional agents of an administered society.  The function of managers as agents and functionalists is "to insure the survival growth/profitability of the organization" and to "satisfy the immediate demands of shareholders/customers/(and to some extent) workers" (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996: 161). TQM, reengineering, empowerment, and transformational leadership are examples of so-called "enlightened"  managerialist ideology. Managerialist ideology became popular at the turn of this century, when family capitalism (owner-entrepreneurs) gave way to corporate capitalism. The owners gave control of the firm to their managerial lieutenants. Managerialism "gave ideological coherence to the control of a relatively small and exclusive group of men over a large group of workers. This also differentiated the viewpoint of managers from that of owner-entrepreneurs." According to Martin and Knopoff (1995), from the start Max Weber (1947) infused managerialism with a masculine and paternalistic ethic. It is this ethic that organizational behavior has begun to challenge in the last two decades. Stories can be told as to why and how certain managers are disciplined (Gephart, 1991) and yet the process of constructing deviance is instituted and accomplished through stories embedded in broader scenes of discourse (Gephart, 1978).

Managerialist storytelling research is decidedly functionalist. The organizational culture studies of the early and mid-1980s, celebrated the functions of storytelling. Gurus like Peters and Waterman, picked up on Alan Wilkins’ dissertation to argue that founding and vision stories are functional to strong-culture organizations, which were thought to outperform weak-culture organizations. A slew of interview studies began to collect interviewee stories which were said to have something to do with control (Wilkins, 1983) or change (Feldman, 1990). There were very few actual field studies of storytelling as a feature of managerial practice. My early ethnographic field work (Boje, 1991) is being functionalist because it looks at how storytelling as a meaning-making and sense-making process is accomplished in managerial practices such as terse-telling and glossing to effect leadership and reorganization. This was the beginning of the Storytelling Organization theory, in which stories are the life blood of organizing and managing.

Beyond Managerialist Storytelling – My more recent work (e.g., Boje, 1995) develops a non-managerialist and non-functionalist approach to storytelling organizations. This is done in what I call a “critical postmodern” approach to the Storytelling Organization.  Critical Postmodern combines Critical Theory focus on power in storytelling (e.g., Mumby, 1987) with Postmodern Theory (e.g. Best & Kellner, 1993, 1997, 2001). Deconstruction (e.g., Martin, 1990), feminist critique (e.g., Calas & Smircich, 1991) and intertextuality (e.g. O’Connor, 2002) focuses upon power, including the pluralism of story plots (polyphony), the multiple ways of interpreting stories (polysemous), and the dialectic interplay between marginalized or silent stories and the dominant more hegemonic stories and storylines of a particular organization and its executive cadre. This post-managerialist ideology is about collective self-determination, rather than top-down, managerialist theories of agency via it command-and-control or so-called empowerment. Critical postmodern approaches to storytelling allows for a dialectic relationship between managerialist narrative and critical narrative.

In sum, the two streams (functionalist/managerialist and critical postmodern) approach the study of storytelling quite differently. Managerialists focus on how stories can be used to do mundane things like transfer knowledge, communicate vision, build strong cultures, accomplish entrepreneurship, leadership, and change, etc.  These are all good things, but as Herbert Marcuse (1969) argues, it is a One Dimensional view of organizations and in my terms, Storytelling Organizations. The Critical Postmodern approach looks at power and knowledge relations constituted by a plurality of storytellers, some more powerful than others.  Further, there are intertextual, contested emplotments, multi-causality, and microstoria relations to be explored that the Functionalist/Managerialist approach cannot address.

Managerialist Stories are almost unrecognizable in the U.S.  Most U.S. scholars and managers do not understand the term “managerialist.”  Critical work on managerialist discourse comes mostly from Australia and the U.K. and reveals, the International community is well along in its understanding of the functionalist mindset. There are critiques and counter-arguments in several of the managerialist debates. There is much concern about the colonization of managerialist ideology from the factory floor to the teaching professions and public administration, in general.

While it is clear that there is no generally agreed and precise definition of the term 'managerialism', a useful (if a little cryptic) version is provided by Pollitt, who sees it as "a set of beliefs or practices, at the core of which burns the seldom-tested assumption that better management will prove an effective solvent for a wide range of economic and social ills"

In short, CT goes beyond the status quo, managerialist outlook that people and nature are there to serve the efficiency and effectiveness needs of organizations.

These management-dominated companies are sometimes called "managerialist" companies, and they have evolved a philosophy of "managerialism" (Enteman 1993). According to this view, the corporate managers are endowed with a "social responsibility" to balance and promote the interests of all the stakeholders which include the shareholders, employees, creditors, suppliers, customers, local residents, and government. However, by being "responsible" to everyone, the managers are in fact accountable to hardly anyone but themselves (as one can judge by considering the levels of executive compensation in the large American companies in comparison with the Japanese firms).

We must therefore seek a framework which focuses upon the worker rather than the work place. One such framework is Bravermans' deskilling thesis (1976:100) which illustrates that the history of capitalism is marked by the progressive degradation of work arising from the managerial expropriation of control from workers through the deepening division of mental and manual labour. This division is achieved by scientific management techniques which seek to sub-divide work into core tasks and results in the replacement of workers by machine process. Braverman illustrates that the outcome is always a detailed division of labour which results in the degradation or deskilling of work from a high to low level of generic skill and from a higher to a lower rate of pay. Whilst Braverman was writing about the eclipse of industrial craftwork, Burawoy (1996:299) argues that his thesis could equally be applied to the intellectual craftwork of the professions.


Wood argues that accounts of service sector work tend to focus on the high skills end of the market, and so fail to understand the extent of managerial control and the relative poverty endured by many of those who work in "services".

In managerialist writing, the new career model and the culture of excellence or enterprise are presented as mutually implicated. Firstly, the new career model is seen as the inevitable outcome of the restructuring and delayering associated with flexibl e organisations and excellence (e.g. Herriot, 1992; Kanter, 1989) fournier.htm

More targeting to those at risk of social exclusion makes a purely managerialist approach much more problematic.

The methodology of quality is an industrial ideology and a tool in the managerialist camp. It appeals to managers who are under pressure to look more and more like industry. It is also a technique of control and for managers struggling with rapid chang e and the pressures of competition it exercises a siren-song appeal.

In essence, ‘Serving the Country Better' could be viewed as introducing managerialist thought in Irish public administration, albeit in an incremental fashion. Predominant to this change was the proposed establishment of Executive Offices where departm ents have a sufficiently large volume of purely executive work, Ministers will be enabled by legislation to transfer such work to separate office – to be known as Executive Offices.

"Performance assessment" contains items concerned with what have been called "managerialist" approaches to improving university teaching (Harvey, 1994), including performance-related pay, student ratings used for personnel purposes, and denial of incre mental progression (Defining item: "Conducting compulsory student ratings of individual teaching performance, linking the results to promotion and/or extra financial rewards").

These reforms (and related ones like the Financial Management Initiative in Britain) were a long overdue reform of a massively inefficient system. They were managerialist, characterised by the slogan 'let the manager manage', a move towards single line budgets, and a welcome emphasis on outcomes rather than processes.

However, within the flurry of managerial change in Australian government, new public sector management practices are emerging which are consistent with the model, but they have been obscured. The reason is that the debate has focused on an "ideal type" of managerialism which is only partly representative of the managerial changes in practice. This archetype will be called Managerialism (with a capitalised initial). The literature of the debate shows its key features: corporate planning; grouping of act ivities by outputs or outcomes; a divisionalised organisation structure; coordination by performance monitoring; generalist managers; and results-oriented remuneration (Weller & Lewis 1989; Davis 1992; Codd 1991; Hughes 1992, p.293).

Most work has been done in the business sector by Stacey [4,7,8] in challenging the orthodoxy of strategic management and using Chaos Theory to illustrate how we need to achieve successful companies by using instability to innovate. In education there i s no equivalent to Stacey, but there is a growing disquiet about managerialism in a range of areas from critiques of site-based management [15] to issues about the quality of teaching and learning [16]. This is nowhere better illustrated than in concerns being raised about the Ofsted inspection process in the UK, where Russell has argued that the inspection framework is a systems approach which "is not only conceptually opposed to randomness and maverick creativity. If applied really well it leaves no room for the serendipity that may inspire excellence"[17, p. 311].



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