Lindebaum, D. & Courpasson D.
Academy of Management Review, 44(1): 227–239
Publication year: 2019

Despite previous work developing an understanding of organizational violence through grounded theoretical frameworks (Clegg, 2006; Hearn, 1994), we still do not understand the extent to which the conscious practice of violence in bureaucracies can influence subsequent individual performance. Part of the problem is that the ‘talk about’ violence at work is so heavily fraught with negative connotations that theoretical and empirical efforts about its potential utility (see also Lindebaum, 2017), such as driving excellent performance at work, are oftentimes suppressed. In consequence, accounts on the potential utility of violence at work remain essentially under-explored within management and organization studies. However, the fact that we do not talk much about violence in management and organization studies cannot be taken as in indicator that it is not present, as classical management accounts have shown (Terkel, 1974).

The lack of engagement with violence as a construct of theoretical and practical relevance poses significant challenges for management and organization studies. As Albrow (1992) reminds us, bureaucratic organizations revolve around emotional politics; their central purpose is to remove and suppress any unpredictable behavior that is an outcome of passionate drivers, so as to build a safe and rational world devoid of anger, violence and love. However, studies of bureaucracies show that it is an endless and hopeless quest for purity and neutrality (Gouldner, 1954). Bureaucracy ends up shaping the parameters of human existence in ways far more closely than anything Weber might have imagined. What is puzzling, though, is that organizational scholarship often discounts the significance of the passionate side of bureaucracies by systematically insisting upon its dispassionate and rule-driven side. As Graeber (2012) puts it, “it’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical force” (p. 112). Thus, we see passions not as abstract and free-floating entities, but as concrete interactional processes in which physical violence, and the threat of violence, can play a constitutive role (Confortini, 2006). In that respect, despite prior influential work on the informal sides of bureaucracies (Gouldner, 1954), it remains obscure how bureaucracies can be something other than impersonal mazes alienating and destroying human capacities. In other words, how can bureaucracies be approached as places where individuals can achieve great things and cultivate a passion for their work, even if it involves violence?

In this essay, we aim to analyze the role of passions when they are inscribed in practices of violence, as drivers for exceptional performance, such as becoming the next prodigy musician (or researcher, employee or soldier). While we elaborate further upon this later, we note here that this focus is relevant to management and organization studies for one specific reason: it enables a better understanding of the dynamics around the conscious practice of violence – and its passionate manifestations – in bureaucracies that can drive subsequent individual and organizational performance. As we argue later, the conscious practice of violence does not imply here that it is inflicted upon the victim against his/her will, but is rather consciously accepted by the victim as a necessary experience toward excellence. Our argument stands at an angle with the literature on work passion and bureaucracies. For one thing, it contrasts with the view that work passion represents “a psychological state characterized by the experience of intense positive emotions, an internal drive to do the work, and a sense of meaningful connection toward one’s work” (Perttula & Cardon, 2011:193, italics added). For another, it stands in direct contrast to the lingering domination within organizational scholarship of a Weberian image of the passionless bureaucracy. To this end, we derive inspiration from the award-winning movie Whiplash. We do so because the movie offers rich and fresh insights into how violence and passion can help explain – under certain circumstances – the everyday quest for excellent performance within bureaucratic organizations.

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