The Faith of the Managers by Stephen Pattison
Published by Cassel, London. 1997
Review by Laurie Chisholm
Many SoFers will be familiar with the idea that new right economics is a kind of religion with its own dogmas that are believed with a devout fervour. This book proposes that we look at management in a similar way. My own experience has often led me to see parallels between what goes on in religion and in business, for example when managers try to motivate their staff and communicate a company vision. This book helped me to see the parallels more clearly and set them in a wider context.
The author was born to a father who was a manager. He studied theology, worked as a hospital chaplain, and taught theology at a university, before becoming a health administrator, then a lecturer at the School of Health and Social Welfare at the Open University in the UK This career path has provided an excellent background for the book.
Theologians, as he says, are trained to recognise and analyse systems of belief. Management often tries to present itself as a_ solid, scientifically-based activity, with its feet firmly on the ground and focussed on such worldly matters as the net profit at the end of the financial year. Pattison puts the case for seeing it as “a kind of implicit religion with particular doctrines, rituals, practices and ethics that form a real faith system." Management surrounds itself with a certain mystique. Techniques such as Total Quality Management show idealising, perfectionist tendencies. Its spokespeople have many similarities with religious leaders.
For example, Tom Peters’ message in Thnving on Chaos boils down to this: the old order is passing away. If you turn from your old ways and listen to me, then there is some chance that you will survive (be saved). Do it now, or it will be too late in this chaotic and rapidly changing world. If you do it, a great future will open up for you.
I found the book of value not only because it pointed out in detail how management operates with unprovable basic assumptions that are very like faith convictions. It also gave a good overview of what management actually is and sketched its recent development. I also appreciated reading about the unacknowledged downside of popular management practices such as the annual appraisal and management by objectives: generally we hear only the upside from highly paid consultants. Although the book describes developments in the UK, NZ readers will find many illuminating parallels to the reforms of our health system and WINZ talking about its clients as “customers’’. A final chapter issues some cautions to those who would import management ideas uncritically into ecclesiastical institutions.