Excerpt from the article: 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.