donderdag 10 mei 2012


In April’s management guru Gary Hamel makes a few interesting remarks. He asks for instance why organizational theory keeps failing to be a full-fledged science. Further he calls management literature “generally weak”, and it appears he is not the only one who thinks so.

Hamel also provides an explanation for the lack of scientific development of organizational theory. Truly scientific thinking is only possible, he says, if you are fascinated by a problem that is truly worth attention. Developing an oppositional concept involves a high degree of personal risk, and most scientists are prepared to run the risk only if they are engaged with issues that really matter. Well, such a hazardous problem is to be found yet in management science.

In other scientific disciplines that kind of motivation is commonplace already for a long time, Hamel says. The greatest human achievements are all the results of a tremendous commitment to risky problems. For examples he mentions the quest for a cure for AIDS or the project of decoding the human genome. In this drudging conception of science he is confirmed by the new President of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences Hans Clevers, “You toil without knowing whether it is profitable. And then suddenly a window opens wide”. In line with that thought Hamel wonders: what is the management thinker’s moon mission?

I partly agree with this line of thought. I also believe that an obsessive theme is needed, but I do not think it is missing. I believe that such a ‘risky problem’ in organizations has since long been found, but maybe it’s just a bit too risky. What I have in mind is the phenomenon of shame and embarrassment. In my view this phenomenon plays an important, but hardly investigated or discussed role in our interaction, while it looms large, even in organizations.

And perhaps the role of this phenomenon, but also its hazardous character, is even extra large, precisely because it is undiscussed. It can therefore grow rampant and create stagnation which then remains unexplained. As Brené Brown says in her TEDTalk: if we want to break stagnation, if we really want to be creative and innovative, we need to talk about shame.

Hazardous it definitely is, amongst others for the following two reasons. First, it is often supposed to be unscientific behaviour to talk about emotions and feelings. In order to be scientifically acceptable according to current codes, mathematics professor Ronald Meester says, one should refrain from words like emotion, meaning, ethics, and thus also  shame. He does not like the codes but they are tough.

In addition, the mere bringing up shame and embarrassment for discussion may cause shame and embarrassment. And that’s scary.

But if Hamel is right in thinking that for science you need risky problems, then precisely in the just mentioned topic might be hidden a nice perspective. The way this theme of shame and embarrassment is painstakingly avoided in organizations could very well generate exactly the scientific stimulation an investigator needs. Risky this problem might righteously be called, more so than many problems of natural scientists who can retreat in their laboratories.

The envisaged problem may be read as follows: how do you combine the human qualities of self-promotion and systematic thinking, which are needed in management, with the inevitability of failure, shame and embarrassment? And that question sounds much like a central question that Hamel puts: how to make organizations just as human as the people who work there? This question seems to me to be risky ánd fascinating at once, with a moon mission’s dignity. Science could not but benefit from it.

Also see Something small