Management Seminars: Severin Hornung (Carnegie Mellon University)

1 October 2019, 12.00 PM - 1 October 2019, 1.30 PM

Severin Hornung (Carnegie Mellon University)

1.01 Howard House

Title: Flexibility and its discontents - a self-narrative of dashed ideals, neoliberal ideology, and resilient humanistic ideas in organizational scholarship


This presentation reviews and reflects on the promises, pitfalls, and prospects of a research program on workplace flexibility the author has been involved in. Continuing themes of quality of working life, human relations, and work redesign, employee-oriented flexibility relates to a humanistic paradigm in organizational scholarship. Flexibility potentials for employees range from top-down implemented broad-based programs (planned interventions) to bottom-up individual actions (autonomous job crafting). The focus here is on idiosyncratic deals (i-deals), bottom-up initiated and top-down authorized personalized arrangements, negotiated between individual employees and employer agents (supervisors or managers), establishing mutually advantageous non-standard work and employment conditions, such as customized work schedules, job tasks, learning opportunities, or career support. Based on a review of the literature and own research, prerequisites, boundary conditions, and limitations of i-deals are questioned in light of the current neoliberal reconfiguration of work organizations. Observed patterns are interpreted based on a suggested model of neoliberal ideology as a matrix of political, social, and subliminal logics, systematically biasing workplace practices, their representation in research, and societal evaluation towards dogmatic principles of individualism, competition, and instrumentality. Antagonistic ideal types are constructed for employee-oriented arrangements and ideological counterapplications, driven by rationalization and differentiation agendas. A suggested counter-model of humanistic ideals positions individuation, solidarity, and emancipation as antipodes to neoliberal utilization strategies. Idealistic or utopian notions of i-deals for facilitating self-actualization, common welfare, and social transformation are contrasted with dystopian realities of employee self-reliance, tournament situations, and economic rationalization. From these tensions, new modes of control arise through psychological internalization and self-imposition of performance and flexibility requirements. This “Subjectification” of work is a characteristic feature of the “new workplace”, opening up discussions on the psychological, economic, and philosophical boundaries between personal agency and self-exploitation. Suggested strategies to reorient flexibility research include focusing on learning and growth, work design, and social justice. Cornerstones of a critical management perspective on interests, ideologies, institutions, identities, and interactions in the flexibility discourse are outlined, incorporating principles of de-naturalization, reflexivity, and non-performativity. The presentation returns to its frame as a self-reflexive account of research deconstructing the ideological foundations of antagonistic paradigms in organizational scholarship, the confounding of which upholds counterfactual theorizing and confusion regarding intended and obtained outcomes. 

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