Consensus Versus Conflictual Reations? Changing Social Competencies of Corporate Executives

Sunday, June 26, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
189 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Saskia Freye, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany; Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany; Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany
A key insight in recent analysis of contemporary capitalist societies has been the appreciation that institutions need to be interpreted by the actors involved (Streeck/Thelen, 2005). By granting actors more agency in selecting from a menu of strategies, the literature takes an interpretative turn and embraces a more nuanced perspective on the relationship between actors and institutions. However, although actors are theoretically given more prominence by this interpretative turn, little is known about the actors themselves. The paper provides a more actor-centred perspective, arguing that to conceive actors and institutions as dialectical and mutually constitutive (Bell, 2011; Sewell, 1992) demands an understanding of actors as social entities.

Empirically the paper uses results from a longitudinal analysis of the career patterns of corporate executives in Germany which allows for inter-temporal comparisons for a period of five decades (1960-2015).

The comparative capitalism literature treats Germany as a prominent example of a highly competitive market economy which departs from the theoretical reference model of neo-classical economics (Hall & Soskice, 2001). Despite appearing formally stable, industrial relations in Germany have changed over the past decades. This can be observed especially on the firm level, where corporations have left the traditional system, realigned their strategies to increasingly meet shareholders’ interests and financial target figures, redefined the corporate goals in terms of commercial interest, and abandoned traditional claims from outside the corporation. As a result, even if the degree is subject to dispute, it is acknowledged that relations between employers and employees in Germany have become more conflictual.

These developments have been linked to new challenges in times of global competition, altered opportunity structures, shifted power relations, and the general problems of organizing (on both sides). Notwithstanding the explanatory power of these approaches, this paper focusses on central actors on the firm level, namely corporate executives. It is argued that formal and legal institutions for participative and consensus-oriented governance associated with German capitalism presuppose a degree of social competence by the actors involved (Auer-Rizzi et al., 2005; Sorge, 1999).The specific career trajectories of German managers provided the basis for enhanced social competencies, specifically by reducing the hierarchical and social distance through more technical related exchange and more frequent social interactions of executives and subordinates. It is argues that the increasing lack of shared experience and personal interaction between executives and subordinates provides an additional factor for more conflictual relations. In effect, even if many formal institutions in the realm of industrial relations are unchanged to a large degree, actors with different experience can be expected to interpret and use these institutions in new and unfamiliar ways.