For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The ethics of managerial subjectivity"

by Ibarra-Colado, Eduardo; Clegg, Stewart R; Rhodes, Carl; Kornberger, Martin (2006)


This paper examines ethics in organizations in relation to the subjectivity of managers. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault we seek to theorize ethics in terms of the meaning of being a manager who is an active ethical subject. Such a manager is so in relation to the organizational structures and norms that govern the conduct of ethics. Our approach locates ethics in the relation between individual morality and organizationally prescribed principles assumed to guide personal action. In this way we see ethics as a practice that is powerfully intertwined in an individual’s freedom to make choices about what to do and who to be, and the organizational context in which those choices are situated, framed and governed.

Key Passage

Specifically, we use Foucault’s work in order to develop an understanding of ethics and management in a way that mediates between an understanding of ethics as an individual responsibility and ethics as organizationally determined. The means through which a manager acts in relation to both ethics and organizations are the central issue. Thus, in this perspective, the subjectivity of managers is located at the centre stage of ethical discussion. Subjectivity is a means through which to think of individual people not as being distinct or self-contained but as necessarily social; however a person might consider themself to be an ‘‘individual’’, such a consideration is always done in relation to others (Mansfield, 2000) and to social institutions, such as organizations. It is in this sense that we seek to theorize ethics in terms of what it means for a manager to be an active ethical subject. Being active entails managing subjectivity as an ethical enterprise in relation to organizational structures and norms. Thus, ethics are not the property of the individual, despite the organization, nor something that organizations control either formally or informally – instead they are a complex and mutually constituting relationship between the two. Foucault’s work is valuable because his concern for ethics is principally about how people constitute themselves as moral subjects of their actions (Foucault 1984d) while, at the same time, being ‘‘disciplined’’ by institutions into being particular types of people (Foucault, 1975). For Foucault ethics is a ‘‘conscious practice of freedom’’ (1984a: 284) through which people develop a notion of ‘‘self’’ that can be considered ethical. Such practice, however, is not free in the sense that it is done in the absence of constraint, but rather in the sense that the ethical self emerges in relation to (or even against) those social and organizational rules and norms which seek to determine or dictate what a person should or should not be. On this basis, our approach seeks to locate ethics in the relation between individual morality and organizationally prescribed principles assumed to guide individual action (Chan and Garrick, 2002; Kelemen and Peltonen, 2001). We argue that a complex interaction exists between these elements – an interaction through which individual managers must negotiate their own ethical conduct. The paper examines the manager as a moral subject in relation to subjectivity at work. Such an ethics involves reimagining and re-inventing the different ways in which people are self-constituted in relation to the institutions and procedures within which they operate (O’Leary, 2002).  (p.46)


Foucault, Business Ethics, Managerial Subjectivity, Governing, Organisational Theory, Subjectivity, Power


On Foucault, Foucault, Critical Management Studies, Organisation and Management Studies

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