Friday, November 7, 2008

Camus, sports metaphors, management and motivation

I heard again the old line from Camus today on the radio ( it’s his birthday) in which he claimed that everything he knew about humanity and our ethical obligations, he learned from playing football. There are some reasons to doubt the full seriousness of the claim, not least Camus’ well-demonstrated penchant for deep and dark ironies, but I’m not doubting him here. On the contrary, the line reminded me of the prevalence and power of sports metaphors in business culture.

It’s tempting to explain away the prevalence of these metaphors as a natural result of shared interests and that’s undoubtedly true when it comes to the endless topical metaphors we all use to claw our way through our daily interactions: 4th and goal, 2 minute warning, crunch time, level playing field, etc., etc., There are entire glossaries online which you can find easily enough.

But I'm more interested in the cultural or ideological framework that underpins these metaphors and makes them work. In other words, now that competition is a generally accepted social good and is viewed as a beneficial supplement to just about everything (relationships, education, entertainment), it’s become easier to blend the experiences of sports and business with metaphors designed to motivate beyond reason.

I'm not suggesting we should blame our bosses or ourselves to the degree we are bosses for these ideological conflations. We’re all in it together stuck with this nagging problem of motivation. Just as (was it Fitzgerald who said it?) that it’s not enough for the rich just to be rich, they have to believe they deserve to be rich, so is it, apparently, not enough for the worker to simply work for money. Most of us mentally position money as the by-product of some more meaningful activity. Do what you love and the money will come, right?

How many management studies rejoice in the fact that the place of compensation in job satisfaction usually follows emotional experiences like “having an impact” or “feeling like you are part of a team”? What a relief for us all to learn once more that there is magic in management.

And so who can blame our bosses for speaking to us as if we were eager young prep=schoolers running onto a grassy field beneath a radiant October sun. Feel the bracing air in your lungs! Didn't we tell them we hungered--with passion!--to sacrifice for something still unseen?