In safety management, we encounter passing trends and fads, each claiming to revolutionize safety work. In some sectors, the trend is still to use culture as an explanation for the safety performance of organizations. A newer trend is Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), which emphasizes that errors are normal and not a matter of choice: Workers often adapt and problem-solve on the job, and the organizational context strongly influences their actions. Discussions have arisen about the “newness” of this approach; “isn’t it just old wine in new wineskins”?
In this piece, I try to understand the dynamics of management trends, fads and fashions like these, by looking at what sociologists write about them.
The Functions of Fashion
Sociologists study the psychological and social motives behind fashion. A century ago, Georg Simmel wrote that the ever-changing nature of fashion mirrors societal restlessness. Fashion both allows individuals to express their uniqueness while also connecting them to larger groups. This duality sparks a blend of admiration and envy for the fashionable. Fashion cyclically revives old styles, creating fresh interest through their contrast with contemporary trends. Management has its own fashions, and there, too, a cycle of reviving old trends is noticable.
Fashion and The Economic Spirit
Werner Sombart, a foundational figure in German-speaking sociology, wrote about the economic spirit: prevailing values and attitudes in distinct economic eras. He linked fashion to capitalism and mass consumption. Capitalism prioritizes wealth accumulation over need satisfaction, leading to accelerated change. The pursuit of profit accelerated since the Crusades that introduced luxury goods that stirred up demand. In our times, goods and services undergo swift transformations, marked by the mobilization of needs. A restlessness-driven need for change leads to accelerated acts of consumption.
Jean Baudrillard's Theory of Fashion: A World of Repetition and Simulation
Philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed fashion in our era as a blend of styles lacking novelty, a mere repetition devoid of substance. He introduced the theory of simulation, where signs represent cultural patterns, transcending originality and relying on reproducing existing models. Signs, in this view, lose intrinsic meaning, becoming interchangeable and self-referential, perpetuating a cycle of style repetition. Individuals may fail to recognize this, because they are engrossed in the spectacle of fashion, celebrating the constant circulation of trends. Baudrillard posited that people reside in a state of simultaneous exhilaration and stagnation, failing to acknowledge the waning historical significance of trends.
Consulting Firms' Strategy: Injecting Innovation into Management Fashions
Considering management fashions, consulting firms often inject their unique concepts and terminology into prevailing management trends to set themselves apart. As businesses continually seek greater efficiency, firms that merely emulate competitors must justify their actions. As management fashions tend to become obsolete, firms must innovate and add their unique perspectives to stay relevant. In the consulting business, firms are paid for these slightly changed management concepts, because they are generic enough and at the same time have some local flavor added for the client organization.
Navigating the Gap between Fashionable Concepts and Organizational Realities
A significant challenge lies in the disparity between expressed ideals and actual management practices, leading to cynicism among employees. This cynicism results in employees dismissing new management initiatives as flavors of the month, leading to demotivation, as sociologist Stefan Kühl writes.
Why do these fashions persist then, you might ask? Organizations grapple with the task of balancing contradictory demands. They strive to meet technical, political, legal, economic, and scientific requirements while maintaining efficient production processes. To reconcile these conflicting expectations, organizations often create a distinction between their internal core structures and external perceptions. This separation grants them the flexibility to operate efficiently while maintaining an appearance of legitimacy to the outside world.
Organizations adapt and cope with external noise by only selecting communications which the organizational system is adapted to deal with. Fashionable statements are mostly easy to incorporate. Considering the effectiveness of these approaches: If the safety professional can’t interpret and understand scientific findings about the (in-)effectiveness of certain approaches, these findings won’t have an influence on their work.
In the world of safety management, trends and fashions abound too. Organizations must strive for alignment between their words and actions. This harmony between ideals and practices is needed to maintain employee motivation and effectively navigate the diverse demands faced. It’s not easy to see the differences between fashionable approaches and what came before, as the fashion cycle continues.
Kühl, S. (2020), Sisyphus in Management – The Futile Search for the Optimal Organizational Structure, Princeton: Organizational Dialogue Press.
Simmel, G. (1923), Die Mode, in: Philosophische Kultur - Über das Abenteuer, die Geschlechter und die Krise der Moderne - Gesammelte Essais, Potsdam: Kiepenheuer.
Wackerfuss, V. (2017), Werner Sombart und sein modesoziologischer Ansatz - Kapitalismus und Mode, in: Soziologie Heute, Issue 52, April 2017, pages 40-43.
Wackerfuss, V. (2017), Jean Baudrillard und sein modetheoretischer Ansatz, in: Soziologie Heute, Issue 56, December 2017, pages 18-21.