Missionaries in a Mercenary World: The Professional as Mercenary

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While studying global corporate workplaces in India and the Middle East, I came across a peculiar set of ideals, norms, and expectations that were widely shared across companies. Together, these constitute a distinct “representative character” that (thanks to Ashwin, the IT professional I mentioned in my previous post) I call the Mercenary.

What’s a representative character? It’s a recognizable symbolic image, tied to specific social roles and contexts, that helps people in those contexts manage their conduct and interpret others’ behaviors. Like stock characters in a play, they reflect distinct standards of worth, visions of the good, and behavioral expectations. They tell you what it means to “play the game” well in that particular domain. Such characters serve as crucial points of reference; even when people in these contexts distance themselves from such models, they recognize that they are breaking from the mold.

The character of the Mercenary is easily identifiable though the interactions, practices, and discourses of day-to-day life in these workplaces. Anil, another consultant I interviewed in Bangalore, described the scripts that shape this character:

All of us in the rat race are shoulder-to-shoulder with, you know, ‘Hey, what’s happening with you, what’s happening in your life?’ And the conversation usually is around, ‘How many flats or condos or apartments do you own?’ ‘What are the investments you make?’ ‘What are the stocks that you are tracking?’ ‘What’s your next jump gonna be?’ You usually orient your success around percentage of hikes you get every year. Salary-oriented. A lot of weightage to titles and designations… “So those become the handles or levers for success that you see. ‘Are you a manager yet? Are you senior manager? Are you director? VP? AVP?’ So those are badges or flags you wave. Of course salary’s important. Flashier cars. Fancier houses. So that’s usually the discussion that’s there in corporate life.

The goals that Anil’s colleagues articulate are shared, understandable, and seen as legitimate; their validity is rarely called into question. They are taken for granted, reflecting their successful and thorough institutionalization.

Representative characters in corporate workplaces vary from age to age. In the prosperous stability of the 1950s it was the loyal “organization man”—risk-averse, conformist, faithful to the company. In the 1980s, scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah identified another such character—“the manager.” Operating in turbulent environments of massive restructuring and downsizing, the manager was charged with achieving efficiency and profit-maximization at any cost.

One of the professionals that sociologist Robert Jackall interviewed for his book Moral Mazes expressed this normative pressure: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

Today’s character of the Mercenary also forces professionals into a similar form of “role morality.”  But the Mercenary is concerned neither with stability nor with maximizing profit. What matters more is money. But it isn’t simply a blind pursuit of money; rather, money is part of a combination of goods, including reputation, status, and ultimately, mobility. The benefits sought here may be oriented towards securing the well-being of one’s family and kin: many Christian professionals combined mercenary injunctions to maximize mobility as a means to fulfil their vocation to their families.

The Mercenary model provides a basis against which professionals measure their own as well as their colleagues’ successes and failures. Its particular logic shapes professionals’ dispositions and actions in day-to-day work, as well as the strategies they feel they ought to pursue for success in their workplaces and careers. I call this normative orientation of the Mercenary “apprehensive individualism.”  More on that in my next post.

Brandon Vaidyanathan is Director of Research at The H. E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas and Public Policy Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

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