The management professors making a career out of myth-busting shareholder capitalism

The management professors making a career out of myth-busting shareholder capitalism
Image: Henri Campeã for Quartz
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When Todd Bridgman makes small talk at parties, the question he dreads most is “What do you do?”

The short answer is that he’s an associate professor of management, which makes him squirm. Bridgman is aware of the stereotypes, fair or not, about business school instructors: They’re supposedly cheerleaders for corporate power, more concerned with profits and strategy than ethics or philosophy, and they see shareholder capitalism as the primary solution to all the problems shareholder capitalism has already caused.

None of this describes Bridgman, though. Despite his job teaching in the management school at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, he is sympathetic to the minority view that business schools should be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, only this time given a wider mandate. He’d like business schools to teach students how to think critically about power within organizations, and the role of corporations generally. Maybe we should make business schools more like liberal arts colleges, or add business classes to liberal arts departments, he suggests.

Bridgman says he had no trouble passing as a typical executive-in-training when he was a business school student himself a couple of decades ago, when he was regularly “spouting back” whatever his professors wanted to hear. But in private he was leaving anonymous messages of resistance to the students coming up behind him. “This is bullshit,” he scribbled in the margins of one marketing bible, knowing he’d eventually sell the book on the then-thriving used textbook exchange. Nowadays, Bridgman asks his students to openly spot the lies or unspoken assumptions in their management lessons, to consider mainstream business theories alongside alternative schools of thought.

For the past several years, Bridgman’s partner in research has been Stephen Cummings, a fellow management professor at Victoria University of Wellington whose main interest lies in history and historiographies. Together, they may have found the Achilles heel of management education: its foundational stories.

Their books and papers ask management scholars and students to rethink famous lessons from Adam Smith, Max Weber, Frederick Taylor, and Abraham Maslow, in light of the evidence from their original writings and the context of their times. They’ve upended commonly held ideas about the objectives of the Harvard Business School case study method, and pointed out the elitist misreadings of psychological conjecture that decades ago led a management theorist to visualize people’s “hierarchy of needs” in pyramid form.

But Bridgman’s job title does not convey any of these nuances. So rather than ask him, “What do you do,” a question certain to get a more satisfying answer from him is: “Who are you, and what do you hope to accomplish?”

A political awakening

I took advantage of one of Bridgman’s regular pilgrimages to the Academy of Management’s annual conferences, held this year in Boston, to put these questions to him face to face. The multi-day gathering, attended each year by a few thousand academics from around the world, attracts researchers in every possible sub-field of management, including the relatively small field of critical management studies, to which Bridgman and Cummings belong.

Since the early 1990s, when the discipline emerged, its members have unpacked all manner of political and cultural biases embedded in conventional management theories, which tend to be drawn from the works of a handful of white men. They’ve also examined the influence of the American-style business schools that teach the same set of theories all over the world, with cookie cutter curricula that draw parables from essentially four countries, the US, the UK, Germany, and Japan.

Bridgman asks students to question everything.
Bridgman asks students to question everything.
Image: Courtesy Todd Bridgman

According to Bridgman, there are proportionally fewer academics of his ilk in the US and Canada. The field of critical management studies has a more active community in the UK, where Bridgman did his PhD at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School in 2004. It’s also thriving in Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand.

The 46-year-old Bridgman came to the field after a short experiment with journalism, a career that’s suited to natural-born questioners, but one that couldn’t hold his attention. As a boy, he says, he was gifted in math and attended a prestigious private high school in Auckland. His parents expected him to go to university and become an accountant. But he defied expectations by turning away from academics to study reporting, partly because he thought he wanted to be a journalist, but also to be finished with school. A journalism diploma required only six months of classes at a technical college—a polytechnic in New Zealand.

Then, during his first and only job at a small-town newspaper, he witnessed a dispute between management and the newsroom, when the owners of the paper moved to cut the policy for paid leave time from four weeks to three. “I could see right away what the problems were with the way management and employees engaged,” Bridgman says.

“One of the things that company leaders will say when they’re making sweeping changes is, ‘Oh, this will be a win-win,’ even though it’s not really a win-win; it can’t be,” he says. “Often, somebody does have to lose, and quite often, it’s the employees,” he says, “because one of the best ways to cut costs is to cut labor.”

After that, he didn’t just backtrack on his college plans; he doubled down, getting two degrees, in political science and commerce, at the University of Auckland. He was drawn to commerce, he says, and the chance its students were given to run a real company, making sweatshirts and umbrellas featuring the school crest and issuing shares of the business to students and parents. But soon, the business school program stopped making sense to him. The professors and fellow students in his business classes weren’t talking about models of power, moral assumptions, or organized labor, even though all of the above was central to understanding what big business had become.

In one set of classes, his political courses, he was reading Aristotle and Marx, sharpening his abilities to think and question his preconceptions, and developing a leftist sensibility. In the other, he was learning what managers were supposed to believe: the job of managers was to optimize workforces and workflows, and to seek maximum returns. It was simply accepted at the business school, he says, that there was one way to look at the world, and that was through a business or managerialist lens. Students were taught how to motivate people, or how to sell, invest, or position a product, as if the world of capitalist pursuits existed in a vacuum. “It was my political awakening,” he explains.

The philosophies he was learning in political science class helped explain his experiences at the newspaper, he found. “I felt the management or the business school stuff didn’t. It only spoke to some of my experience and kind of left a whole lot out,” he says.

His father, a dentist who ran an independent practice in an underserved district of Auckland, was politically conservative, an activist and supporter of the privatization wave transforming New Zealand in the 1980s. His three siblings all went into business in some form. Bridgman, by contrast, became obsessed with the dogma of late-stage capitalism and specifically how it played out within large corporations.

He would go on to study the role of management professors as public figures for his PhD thesis, working with Hugh Willmott, one of the founders of critical management studies and co-author of what’s largely considered its foundational text. Then he went home to New Zealand, landing at his current job, where he was assigned to an office next to Stephen Cummings, another relatively new professor.

The past is present

Cummings, too, had gone to graduate school in the UK, studying business at the University of Warwick. He also had started off in another career: fashion design. Unlike Bridgman, he had grown up in a lower-middle class community, just north of Wellington, where going to university “wasn’t really something people did,” he tells me when we meet up in Boston. In his plaid shirt worn open over a t-shirt and jeans, he looks like a cynical Gen-Xer who wandered into the wrong conference, and probably wouldn’t mind yanking Big Management’s chain.

In high school, Cummings says, “it never occurred to me that I needed to get good grades.” So he went to a polytechnic where his middling academic performance was tolerated. He studied clothing design, having worked in menswear through high school, and then joined the clothing industry upon graduating—just as people started to import cheap fashions from overseas. That shift sent him back to school, this time to university, in search of a new occupation.

Through a quirk in the way students were assigned to departments, Cummings ended up majoring in classical history instead of business, which became his minor. He found fulfillment in interpreting the history of the Greeks and Romans and other civilizations. “I got really interested in the stories that people tell about history,” he said, “and that history isn’t just about the facts of what happened in the past; it’s a living tradition that helps people shape an identity about what’s important to them today.”

The proximity effect worked its magic on Bridgman and Cummings, who discovered a natural common ground. They fell into collaborating, with Bridgman more concerned with management education, and Cummings with historiographies.

Working as a team, and pulling in other colleagues for various papers, they have uncovered several intriguing “inconvenient truths,” as Bridgman calls them, about the early management theorists so often cited in textbooks.

For instance, most business students learn that Frederick Taylor’s concept of efficiency changed organizations. Often left out is that Taylor, a mechanical engineer, was also concerned with sustainability (“conservation” in his times) as a company’s end goal, not efficiency for its own sake. Kurt Lewin’s famous unfreeze-change-refreeze model for managing organizational cultural transitions, they found, was fashioned after Lewin’s death, inspired by a few short sentences in which the psychologist alluded to how social change “may be thought of” in three stages, unfreeze-move-freeze. (Many ideas in early management theory were borrowed from other disciplines, such as social psychology.)

Every popular model of change theory since has basically been built on the three-step method, Bridgman and Cummings argue in a paper co-written with professor Kenneth Brown of the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. Textbooks that introduce Lewin’s big idea emphasize a manager’s power to control the change process. What was ignored? Lewin’s belief that group dynamics would drive and direct the course of a transformation more than any other force, and that before any decisions were made, there ought to be a free and open discussion about the change in the air with the people who would be affected by it.

The proximity effect worked its magic on Todd Bridgman (left) and Stephen Cummings.
The proximity effect worked its magic on Todd Bridgman (left) and Stephen Cummings.
Image: Courtesy Todd Bridgman and Stephen Cummings

Three years ago, Bridgman, Cummings, and a third author, Colm McLaughlin of University College Dublin, made waves with new research about the history of the Harvard Business School case study method, an approach the esteemed school has used to teach the likes of a young Jamie Dimon, now the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Sheryl Sandberg, who became chief operating officer of Facebook, and other captains of modern industry.

After digging through the archives at HBS, the professors discovered that Wallace Donham, the former dean who popularized the case study beginning in the 1920s, later decided it was too limited in scope. In reading Donham’s writing and his correspondence with the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in particular, it became clear to the researchers that Donham sincerely believed the case study’s decision-forcing exercise—designed to channel students’ mental energy toward hypothetically improving profits at a single business—was too indifferent to societal consequences and equality among workers.

HBS’s public histories make no mention of Donham’s revised position, illustrating the Foucauldian point Bridgman and his co-authors make in many studies, that the past is written to justify current conditions and facts that don’t fit the desired narrative are ignored.

In this case, a descendent of Donham’s would come forward to thank the academics for correcting the record. Shortly after Quartz published an article about the Harvard Business School paper, in 2018, Parker Donham, a retired journalist who now lives in Canada, and is the youngest grandchild of the late Wallace Donham, got in touch with Bridgman and his co-authors. He wrote:

Gumpy, as his grandchildren knew him, was a pretty big deal in our family, a somewhat remote and forbidding figure who cast a big shadow and gave our family a certain social entree to upper class circles of Boston and Cape Cod. My siblings and cousins and I grew up with the belief, conveyed by our parents (his sons), that he had an abiding concern for the impact of businesses on their communities, and on social progress and social justice in general, a philosophy the school seems to have honoured in the breach in recent decades. It has been an ongoing puzzlement to us that no trace of this legacy can be found in the school’s official portrayal of Gumpy. Was it really true, or just a figment of our fathers’ and uncles’ filial piety?

Your work, he wrote to the researchers, “clears up so much for us.”

The Bridgman and Cummings paper that has probably had the widest impact in their field and beyond came the following year. “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid?,” co-written with John Ballard, emeritus professor of management at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio and published in early 2019, quickly became the most downloaded paper on the Academy of Management’s website.

Here the authors contend that Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist, did not in fact create the multicolored, triangular graphic that came to symbolize his hierarchy of needs. Rather, they argue, the pyramid grew out of a misinterpretation of his work, first by a management theorist named Douglas McGregor who wrote about Maslow’s theory, and later by Charles McDermid, a psychologist at a Wisconsin consulting firm, who appears to be the first person to conjure a triangle to illustrate the idea, in a 1960 essay. The symbol, the academics argue, says more about an elitist attitude cultivated by corporate leaders than it does about the psychologist’s grand theory.

You wouldn’t know it from reading a management textbook produced in the last 50 years, but Maslow didn’t believe that the needs he identified were progressive steps, achieved as you moved from the base of the pyramid toward the upper layers. He wrote that people typically have several unmet needs at one time, the authors write.

In the management context, Bridgman has argued, placing Maslow’s self-actualization at the top of a pyramid, which conveniently resembles the structure of an organization, has had damaging implications. The message is that the people near the pinnacle of an organizational chart have more sophisticated needs and find, or require, more meaning in their work than rank-and-file employees scrambling to fulfill more basic needs like safety and shelter.

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Bridgman and Cummings’ largest project to date may be the A New History of Management (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which they wrote with peers John Hassard of the University of Manchester and Michael Rowlinson at the University of Exeter. The book contextualizes what the authors characterize as potted histories of management’s founding fathers.

That the past deserves so much consideration can be a tough argument to make in management circles, where disruption, pivoting, and agility are so prized, Bridgman and his peers have found. But understanding the full history of management, Bridgman and Cummings say, is key to developing critical thinking muscles, which employers need and usually claim to want.

You can’t please everyone

Questioning textbook mainstays and reframing iconic ideas has been “fun” for the professors, Cummings tells me. It also has brought the duo much praise from peers, as well as an invitation to compress their research for The Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap series by Sage publishing, in the UK. (Their contribution is scheduled to be published in late 2020.)

Naturally, they have also attracted mixed reviews and some scathing critiques. For example, in one take on A New History of Management, Jeffrey Muldoon, associate professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, wrote, “While there is some merit within the book, the authors often do not marshal enough evidence to support their claims. Mostly, the book falls flat, often bereft of evidence, makes claims that cannot be supported and has a smug attitude.”

Some traditional management historians who are specialists in one person’s oeuvre have also taken exception with Bridgman and Cumming’s method of dipping into biographies and concepts just to zero in on a single teaching. The accusation is that they create their own straw person, says Bridgman, “but how we’ve managed to get around that is we’re particularly looking at how those ideas are represented in management textbooks. The data we’re using is the textbook.”

He also suspects that the admittedly provocative title of the duo’s first book, A New History of Management, has been taken as an affront by scholars. “I think they perceived that we were claiming not only to be historians, but to have produced better histories than had been produced in the field to date,” says Bridgman. But he sees their history as new and different, he explains, not definitive.

“These pieces,” he says, “are almost like investigative journalism, and we can write this in a reasonably engaging style, for an academic, and that may be seen by some within academia as being too journalistic and not sufficiently measured and academic in tone.”

Some attacks have felt personal, he says. But their partnership has made that easier. “When you’re being criticized,” Cummings offers, “I think it’s great if you can receive it in teams.”

Leaders and “leadership”

On his 22-hour trip from Wellington to Boston for the August management conference, Bridgman watched two HBO productions that had him thinking about the themes in his research: The Inventor, a documentary about the Theranos scandal, and Chernobyl, a mini-series that took creative license in its telling of the worst accident in nuclear history, but captured what the New York Times called a basic truth about why it happened. “The Chernobyl disaster was more about lies, deceit and a rotting political system than it was about bad engineering or abysmal management and training,” wrote science journalist Henry Fountain.

The depiction of Soviet decay and bureaucratic shenanigans in Chernobyl, Bridgman says, reminded him that we’re relying on free market capitalism to help us innovate our way out of crises today, such as climate change. The Theranos story, meanwhile, left him newly astonished by the cult-of-personality phenomenon that has invaded corporations and business schools (and, Bridgman believes, fueled the election of US president Donald Trump).

As Bridgman sees it, the kind of leader glorification that allowed Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to deceive most of her employees and allegedly defraud investors to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars stands as among the most pressing threat to progress. (It also enabled and protected the predator leaders felled by the #MeToo movement, he points out.)

There was a period in post-World War II America in which a star CEO would have been seen as a menace. After witnessing the rise of Hitler and the catastrophe that followed, there was a commonly shared feeling that “the leader should not be a messiah or godlike figure,” Bridgman says. Companies emphasized a behavioral and context-specific approach to training managers instead. “But that gave way in the ’80s when we went back to leadership as a form of idol worship,” he notes.

Since then the CEO savior story has become particularly pernicious and resilient. We tell stories—whether in the press or in classrooms—about new CEOs arriving at their organizations with a grand plan, Bridgman laments. “Often it goes horribly wrong because they don’t engage with the people. They don’t listen to the employees, they don’t understand the context,” says Bridgman. “We see a leader as someone who has a special vision of the future, has access to information that the rest of us don’t have, which in my experience is untrue, and actually, quite the opposite of true.”

And when it all goes sideways, creating job losses or other calamities, the leaders simply move on to their next leadership post, says Bridgman. The disappointed company, meanwhile, goes looking for a new rescuer.

It’s frustrating to Bridgman that in modern, free societies where we cherish debate and representation, imperious CEOs rule the day. The rank-and-file may have better insights into the organization than the leader, he suggests, and seeking their voices would be helpful to management, while also likely moving the needle on that elusive metric of employee engagement. Yet few companies are managed with democratic processes. “Why are we so supportive of democracy in the political sphere—it’s highly valued as the only right way—but when it comes to companies, it comes down to ‘If you don’t like it here, you can leave,’” Bridgman says. “I can’t wrap my head around that.”

In theory, the Business Roundtable’s recently updated statement on the purpose of the corporation, suggests we’re coming full circle, reviving post-war principles and even honoring the buried intentions of past figures like Wallace Donham. The Roundtable’s new statement says that companies have a responsibility to all stakeholders, including shareholders but also employees, customers, and communities. If the powerful CEO lobbying group succeeds in setting a new tone, the next crop of business leaders shouldn’t feel beholden to shareholders alone, and ought to be more interested in collaboration with employees rather than running a corporate dictatorship. Bridgman, along with the other skeptics, only hopes the statement is more than empty rhetoric.

Not alone

A few weeks after I meet Bridgman in Boston, he’s back home in New Zealand, railing against the state of modern management education.

What set him off was a Harvard Business School blog post summarizing a conference keynote given by HBS professors Nancy Koehn and Joe Fuller, who spoke about the differences and the interplay between leadership and management. Drawing on the work of another HBS professor, John Kotter, Koehn shared a definition of leadership as “the creation of positive, non-incremental change, including the creation of a vision to guide that change—a strategy—the empowerment of people to make the vision happen despite obstacles, and the creation of a coalition of energy and momentum that can move that change forward.”

Management, by contrast, was “getting the confused, misguided, unmotivated, and misdirected to accomplish a common purpose on a regular, recurring basis,” said Fuller, who teaches the online course Management Essentials.

Bridgman couldn’t resist responding on social media.

It’s convenient for schools to make this kind of distinction, Bridgman says, because they’re now selling leadership-themed programs hard, an effort to shore up flagging interest in full-time MBA programs. In the latest admissions cycle, applications to the top 25 MBA programs in the US fell from the previous year at all but two schools, according to Poets&Quants, a website covering news about business schools.

But when business educators put the concept of leadership on a pedestal, they perpetuate a destructive myth about the power of leaders to save our futures, Bridgman argues. Look around, he suggests. Business schools are busy generating superheroes, if you believe their advertising. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, for example, invites students to: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.”

“It really winds me up,” Bridgman says, “and I know I’m not alone in that.”

What’s it all for?

One of the hazards of encouraging students to think critically about received wisdom and a too-powerful authority is that Bridgman, with his popularity on campus, could easily become the type of figure he detests. He confesses that he is forever analyzing and reflecting on his own teaching and mentoring style. He wonders if he’s as open to feedback as he claims to be. (In a class of more than 200 people, he asks himself, do I really want students lining up to complain about their grades?)

At least two former students tell me they had no complaints. He is “a really engaging teacher,” says Ruth Weatherall, who took Bridgman’s organizational behavior class more than a decade ago.

Weatherall was so inspired by the course that she later chose to specialize in critical management studies, focusing on nonprofit and social enterprise management, and lectures on the topic at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia. “I know it’s not just me. A lot of students who come into critical management studies were introduced to it through that course with Todd,” she says.

Another former student, Ben Walker, who now teaches at the same university as Bridgman, says his experience with Bridgman in his second year of business school resuscitated his faith in education itself.

At the time, Walker wasn’t enjoying university “at all,” he told me when we met during the Boston conference. “I was going through the motions, but I felt like ‘Eh, whatever, I’ll study business,’” he says, rolling his eyes to invoke his disenchanted younger self. Bridgman’s class was “refreshing,” though, because it invited him to question things and to point out the issues he had with the management principles he was taught in his freshman year.

“I really loved it,” he says. “It resonated with the part of me that was sitting in those first year classes going, ‘Really? Is that true? Is that the whole story?’” Walker would go on to study organizational behavior, writing his PhD thesis on a theory he’s developing about what he calls performance-based identity.

How do things change?

Bridgman and Cummings’ sleuthing has uncovered important discrepancies between management theory and historical fact—discrepancies that have shaped the conditions under which society grants businesses the license to operate, sometimes to damaging effect for society. But it’s unclear, perhaps even to Bridgman, where all this work going. How do things change? Is it through the viral popularity of a few papers, like the one on Maslow’s pyramid? The opening of students’ minds?

“Careers are made by wailing loudly in books and papers about the problems with business schools,” Martin Parker, a professor of organization and culture at the University of Leicester School of Management, writes in The Guardian. But Parker, the author of Shut Down the Business School (Pluto Press, 2018), asserts that the “insiders’ dissent has become so thoroughly institutionalised within the well-carpeted corridors that it now passes unremarked, just an everyday counterpoint to business as usual.”

Bridgman doesn’t disagree with that. He says he’s not naive enough to believe that changing management textbooks and pedagogy alone will bring us to a tipping point. But, he says, “my hunch is the more people can be more intellectually critical of business, it will lead to healthier companies and break down this hierarchy of the institution.”

If we got our history right, and acknowledged the flaws in management thinking exposed in Bridgman and Cummings’ research, maybe we’d have fewer Theranos– or WeWork-style crises, I suggest. But Bridgman resists making flashy declarations.

“I’m not very good at predicting the future,” he says. “I’m much happier talking about the past.”