Moving beyond stewards versus agents : Exploring business managers as existential beings in the interior-design and furniture industry in Småland, Sweden

Sammanfattning: Exploring two theoretical positions in the field of corporate governance – stewardship theory and agency theory – Moving beyond stewards versus agents homes in on the positions’ respective conceptions of managers. Although fundamentally drawing a clear line between the two positions, these conceptions also conjoin them. The two theoretical positions build their distinctive conceptions of managers on two models of man – the economic man and the empathetic man – each associated with a different set of fundamental assumptions about man. These models’ respective differences have ultimately shaped the discourse on stewardship theory and agency theory, but, more importantly, have theoretically formed how man is understood. An examination of the theoretical discourse indicates that man is understood as a dichotomy, that is, as consistent with the fundamental assumptions associated with the theoretical conception of either the steward or the agent. In this dissertation, however, I explore the possibility of conceiving managers as existential beings, a conception that would imply a simultaneous resonance with each set of assumptions. To theoretically conceive managers as existential beings, I develop an alternative approach based on three works by social psychologist Johan Asplund. This approach enables a complex understanding of man that comes closer to a both/and stance rather than to an either/or. To arrive at a point where managers can be theoretically conceived as both/and, I delve into the historical and current theoretical discourse on stewardship and agency by outlining the discourse as dichotomous. The dichotomies discerned are interpreted as a figure of thought based on dichotomous and essential thinking. The Asplundian approach enables one to understand the dichotomous shape of the discourse on the two corporate governance theories as a consequence of a figure of thought grounded in normative and essentialist thinking. In other words, extant theory defines managers in terms of what is, thus leaving out what could be. I address this by using the Asplundian approach as a springboard into an alternative figure of thought grounded in existential philosophy. Theoretically conceiving man from an existential position thereby allows one to move beyond the extant dichotomy of stewards versus agents. The empirical context is based on the engagements of a group of managers associated with Interior Cluster Sweden (ICS), an organization situated in the interior-design and furniture industry in Småland, Sweden. With a starting point in extant theory, this group of managers would be understood as either stewards or agents, but in the context of this dissertation they become theoretically and empirically understood as existential beings. As such, an existential understanding of managers is one way of enabling a theoretical understanding of man that conceives man as possible to understand as both/and. This dissertation contributes to the corporate governance literature and more precisely to the theoretical discourse on stewardship and agency by suggesting that existential philosophy offers a potentiality to move beyond dichotomous, normative, and essential theorizing about managers.