I recently came across a new and fascinating idea in the most recent issue of the Business Ethics Quarterly: the concept of organized immaturity.
Building on Kant, Scherer and his co-authors understand “immaturity” as “a characteristic of individuals or social collectives that arises when individuals defer or delegate autonomous reasoning to external authorities, including the authority of sociotechnological systems”. (Scherer et al. (2023), p. 414.) Simply put, organized immaturity is immaturity expanded to a systemic level.
Even if the concept itself is new to you, you have inevitably experienced some manifestations of organized immaturity in various aspects of your life. It happens, for instance, when a group of people abdicate thinking through a complex and difficult question in favour of espousing a satisfying one-liner (preferably in meme format) conveniently offered by some influencer through a social media platform. It also happens in the workplace whenever you and your colleagues accept an idea or a course of action without going through the trouble of weighing the evidence and thinking through the conclusions on your own, or accept some stated end (e.g. improving productivity) as desirable without asking yourselves if it’s really that simple.
It also happens when organizations, by way of elaborate and sophisticated management systems, curtail individual and group discretion through prescriptive processes and performance indicators to the point that, at every juncture, only one course of action is effectively available to the person nominally in charge of making the “decision”.
The authors draw on Hannah Arendt, who foresaw “the world of work as developing into a “society of jobholders” whose lives are filled by automatic responses to system-set stimuli, devoid of any individuality and responsibility for the “trouble of living”. (Scherer and Neesham (2022), p. 417)
I have personally never met an executive who thought that critical thinking and problem solving should be washed out of their organizations. Quite to the contrary, decision-makers that I talk to all see such qualities as critically important to the success of their organizations. But do organizations create the conditions required to sustain and develop the kind of intellectual maturity – at the same time critically important and potentially annoying to leaders – that is the opposite of the kind of organized immaturity being discussed here?
Scherer and his colleagues see this as a two-pronged program consisting of disorganizing immaturity and organizing maturity. (Scherer et al., 2023, p. 424) Ruehle brings those two aspects together under the project of “strengthening people’s meta-autonomy”:
”[T]he abilities that strengthen meta-autonomy, such as reflecting, questioning, and reasoning, can also be utilised more broadly and can therefore help to mitigate organised immaturity in other areas of life.” (Ruehle (2023), p. 521)
As opposed to the kind of command and control or manipulative environments that erode maturity through mechanisms of infantilization, reductionism and totalization (Scherer and Neesham (2022), p. 11), I see coaching as a key approach for growing autonomy within organizations. Whether individually or within group and team settings, the coaching approach is inherently empowering. A good coach will help individuals and groups think through difficult questions rather than give answers. Socrates, as we know him from Plato’s writings, was famous for using this kind of method, also known as the maieutic approach, to help develop critical thinking.
You might wonder why organizations would bother investing in the kind of coach-like approach to leadership that I’m discussing here. It is, after all, often more expedient to simply tell people what to do. Helping a person or a group think through a complex question, on the other hand, can be a lot of work. And of course, there’s always the risk that they’ll develop a liking for thinking for themselves…
Also high on my list of things that support autonomy and maturity in the workplace: giving employees some meaningful level of discretion regarding the way they do their work (make decisions, manage their time, etc.), giving them a say in hiring decisions, and consulting them on difficult trade-offs that are likely to affect them. In short, treating them a fully formed adults.
Ruehle believes that organisations should “value responsible, empowered, and autonomous employees who are able to reflect, question, and design the work environments in which they can flourish personally and professionally.” (Ruehle (2023), p. 521) I agree as a matter of principle, and I can’t imagine the kind of dystopian workplace described by Arendt propelling any organization to new levels of innovation and adaptability.
But there’s another argument in favor of organizations investing in the autonomy of their employee-citizens:
“[T]he purpose of the corporation is, and has always been, to promote the common good. Corporations have existed for thousands of years and have sprung up in radically different social contexts and milieus, but they have always been closely connected to the state and its interests.” (Magnuson (2022), p. 298. Also see McMahon (2013), pp. 7, 26, 84, 91, 136, and 143)
As collective actors within a broader polity that requires citizens endowed with “capabilities required to effectively exercise autonomy in judgment and decision-making, to apply reason and experience for the public good, and to challenge existing institutions to change them for the benefit of the wider community” (Scherer et al. (2023), p. 414.), organizations owe it to themselves and to the broader community to do their part in disorganizing immaturity and organizing maturity within their walls.
Of course, this is all but my opinion, and I would love to hear the case against.
Magnuson, W. (2022). For Profit: A History of Corporations. Basic Books, New York, 357 pages.
McMahon, C. (2013). Public Capitalism: The Political Authority of Corporate Executives. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 206 pages.
Ruehle, R. (2023). The Moral Permissibility of Digital Nudging in the Workplace: Reconciling Justification and Legitimation. Business Ethics Quarterly, 33(3), 502-531.
Scherer, A. G., & Neesham (2022). Organized immaturity in a Post-Kantian perspective: Toward a critical theory of surveillance capitalism.
Scherer, A., Neesham, C., Schoeneborn, D., & Scholz, M. (2023). Guest Editors’ Introduction: New Challenges to the Enlightenment: How Twenty-First-Century Sociotechnological Systems Facilitate Organized Immaturity and How to Counteract It. Business Ethics Quarterly, 33(3), 409-439.