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Is your Organisation Decadent?

Is your Organisation Decadent?

I recently went out for drinks with a lovely young lady involved in the early stages of a new wearable technology start up. She was all the things a great start up leader should be; charming, passionate, articulate, energised and energising, and very knowledgable. As the evening progressed, I was increasingly struck by her enthusiasm towards new ways of living and working and her naivety that she could avoid power relations and the vagaries of the market.

Reflecting on the meeting a few days later, I realised I had had a direct encounter with a restless decadent. More common parlance would call her a "disruptor", which is certainly what she calls herself. However, as I tend to look at the development of trendy organisational terms through an environmental or sociological lens, I am more focused on the organisational and social conditions that might have informed her personal journey. Which, for me, means a quick trip into the concept of organisational decadence. 

What do I mean by Organisational Decadence?

In very simple terms, a decadent organisation is one which 

seem[s] exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. [It] function[s] painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Those managing a decadent organisation will artificially attempt to create the enthusiastic environment that characterised the earlier stages of its development, employ anti-cultural people to re-engage the creative process, try to generate lost excitement by living close to the ethical edge, and enable a more permissive, dangerously edgy, atmosphere to develop. 

Signs your Organisation might be Decadent

1: Artificiality: Much critical organisational research examines the increasing feeling that the person you are expected to be at work is not the real you, constrained by the uniform you have to wear (and a business suit is a uniform!), the smile you have to fake, the script you have to learn, the ideas you have to swallow, and the emotions and frustrations you have to hold in check. Because you feel you can't be yourself, psychological stress often follows. 

Decadent organisations respond by developing the notion of managing the idea of "Just Being Yourself". This might include encouraging organised fun (i.e. fancy dress days), allowing cool dress codes, permitting once frowned upon leisure activities (alcohol at work! raucous employee parties!!) and flirtatious environments. Whilst some employees enjoy such environments, other object to its ‘plastic’, ‘fake’, ‘cheesy’ and ‘shallow’ artificiality, constructed to beguile them into subjectively conforming to the company’s rules.

2: Creativity: Technological pacing, bureaucratic formalization and cultural normalization, once organisational standards, are now increasingly perceived as anathema. Instead, quirkiness, wackiness and weird self-expressionism are seen as crucial to creative success. Even Tom Peters, the guru of the strong culture movement, changed his tune when he began to encourage companies to hire and reward zanies, nutters, freaks and mavericks who can express their natural, creative curiosity in organisational environments reminiscent of “joyful anarchies”. 

As discussed above, decadent organisation tries to nurture such characters by letting them “be themselves”, which, when lacking the meaningful working environment in which to prosper, can result in the self becoming so obsessed with appearance, experience and the aesthetic pleasure of work that ethics and values are deemed irrelevant. This set of cultural characteristics is tapped into when organisational consultants craft out images that are perceived by consumers to be invocative of the organisation’s authentic, anti-capitalist instincts (e.g. American Apparel). 

3: Ethics: Leaders in decadent organisations will have lavish and exceedingly conspicuous lifestyles, gaining pleasure not just from their huge profits, but also from the distress and discomfort that their practices caused to others. In such an environment, high performers develop a cult-like admiration from peers and a laissez-faire attitude from superiors.

There is a tendency for employees to employ wily, deceptive, devious techniques to get away with possibly corrupt and unscrupulous practices that support an extravagant lifestyle. For the outside observer, these practices and extravagancies are hidden by charm, deflection and an intelligent deviousness baked up by explicitly shared statements that the company and its leaders are "great" and that it is impossible that they might be doing something wrong or unethical (e.g. Enron). 

4: Permissiveness: A decadent organisation will facilitate permissive attitudes in in the absence of a meaningful working culture, in which displays of sexuality are acknowledged as a positive feature of company life. Employees are allowed, even encouraged, to wear risqué and highly sexualized clothing. In-company dating is regarded as the norm. Although many employees will celebrate such practices, others tend to find the atmosphere sleazy and lecherous.

Extreme out of office practices of relaxation maybe evident, with some employees embarking on self-destructive journeys involving fortunes spent on drugs and prostitutes. Employees may try to totally escape from organisational life and its responsibilities by taking even more extreme measures, in which workers retreat into a form of adult babyhood, retreating from the pressures of work into the total dependence on others, or by mimicking death in flotation tanks.

Responding to Decadence

Decadence does not mean there is a lack of energy in the culture. Just a loss of organisational direction and a series of managerial actions desperately aimed at developing a fun and creative culture out of boredom and drudgery or introduce a sense of danger into organisational living. which get more and more extreme as each previous attempt fails. Despite such organisational conditions prevailing, the term decadence

implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.

Fundamentally, the decadent organisational form has no clear direction, seemingly existing just for the sake of existing, but is staffed by energetic, talented, ethical and very actively concerned people trying to make things happen and add meaningful engagement to their organisational lives.

Are we, then, seeing the emergence of incivil and restless organisational decadents? Incivil organisational decadents will (a) desperately grab whatever is new, exciting and dangerous in a desperate attempt to add meaning to their organisational existence, then (b) retreat into cynicism, sarcasm, frustration and boredom. Restless organisational decadents will completely reject the old way, setting out to transform organisational life, change embedded behaviours and disrupt traditional ways of working. They might not know what is coming, but they are damned if they are going to let meaningless drudgery and increasingly desperate escape attempts define their existence. 

These are interesting times we live in. 

NB: The data I explore and employ to flesh out the framework of decadence comes from the corpus of work of Peter Fleming, currently Professor of Business and Society at CASS Business School. I thoroughly recommend his work to anybody interested in the more critical appreciation of management and organisations.


The quotes both come from Barzun, J. (2000) From dawn to decadence : 500 years of Western cultural life : 1500 to the present. London, Harper Collins, 2001, pp xvi

Irony | Garland Greene
Irony | Christopher Hitchens

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Friday, 29 May 2020

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