Paralysing Rebellion: Figurations, Celebrity, and Power in Elite Talent Management

  • John Lever
  • Stephen SwailesEmail author


The extensive literature on talent management is relatively silent when it comes to understanding power relations, and this chapter explores power dynamics in elitist talent programme. The argument draws heavily on Norbert Elias’s ideas of figurations and his analysis of Court Society which are coupled with Robert van Krieken’s recent analysis of celebrity society. After considering how power manifests in human resource development (HRD), the chapter unfolds connections between ancient court behaviour and contemporary organization. Behaviour in elite talent pools is likely to be self-regulating in ways that suit both ambitious individuals and senior managers. The analysis suggests that elite talent pools act in ways that paralyse rebellion from within by pitting ambitious individuals against each other.


Figurations Celebrity society Talent management Power Control 

Putting aside the use of ‘talent’ to mean more or less anyone in the labour market or a workforce, the focus of this chapter is to explore the dynamics of elitist talent programmes. At the heart of elite programmes are judgements of a person’s recent performance and of their potential for transfers and promotion. The recent acceleration of research in the field (e.g., see Al Ariss, 2014; Collings, Mellahi, & Cascio, 2017; Sparrow, Scullion, & Tarique, 2014a) covers multiple aspects and understandings of talent, but, we suggest, a feature of most of this literature, in common with much that is written about management (Willmott, 1987), is a lack of appreciation that managing talent is laced with political opportunity and is not politically neutral. This has been noted elsewhere (De Broek, Meyers, & Dries, 2018; van den Brink, Fruytier, & Thunnissen, 2013), but, to our knowledge, there has been no detailed analysis yet of how power relations could operate in elite talent management, and we attempt to contribute to that understanding in this chapter. To assist in this aim, we draw specifically on Norbert Elias’s ideas of figurations and Robert van Krieken’s work on celebrity society. The chapter first considers how power operates in human resource development (HRD). We then give an overview of figurational sociology before applying it to elite talent management. We show how individuals in elite talent pools are likely to impose order and self-regulation upon themselves; ambitious individuals need talent pools to get noticed while top managers need them as ways of managing ambition and tension in a particular organizational context. In a nutshell, talent pools act in ways that paralyse rebellion by pitting ambitious individuals against each other.

Power in Human Resource Development

HRD has a ‘political purpose’ behind it that is at odds with its potential to ‘transform’ individuals (Vince, 2014). Restricted access to elitist talent programmes and top management’s choices around the outcomes for their participants are examples of this political purpose. In managing talent, power initially shows its face in appraisal decisions and in talent review meetings where decisions affecting individual futures are made. The consequences of these decisions can have significant psychological and career effects on the ‘talented’ (Meyers, De Boeck, & Dries, 2017) and on those who are passed over for another time.

Power is not simply held by those overseeing talent programmes and making talent decisions. A high need for power has been observed in people with high performance ratings and higher promotion rates (Stahl, 1983) and the relative power of HR managers influences judgements around the effectiveness of development programmes (Kim & Cervero, 2007). Decisions about who should benefit from scarce organizational resources such as executive attention and access to development programmes will, over time, change the distribution of power across an organization. Executive search firms also wield power through their gatekeeping role and their relationships with large firms, their adoption of scarcity discourses in recruitment, and also through their use of talent definitions that determine who is or is not classified as talent (Faulconbridge, Beaverstock, Hall, & Hewitson, 2009).

Not only is HRD political, the same is true of management generally (Stewart, 1984) which, despite its common purpose of trying to achieve useful outcomes for organizations, is always a relational process. ‘The essence of managing is power’ (Townley, 2005: 306), no matter how management plays out and manifests itself. The conjunction of ‘talent’ and ‘management’ therefore brings together two highly politicized concepts and arenas laced with issues of power. The argument advanced in this chapter is that the field’s appreciation of power/control perspectives in relation to elitist talent programmes is underdeveloped and that failure to confront and understand power relations in talent programmes limits the value of orthodox (politically neutral) research approaches to knowledge generation.

Elite talent programmes have something in common with Foucault’s (1979) concerns about learning and examinations. Talent programmes make people visible by virtue of being selected for them, and allow the overseers of the programmes to compare participants with each other, to judge and to categorize them. Despite the differences that naturally occur between people, they are required to compete against each other in relation to a standardized externally devised rubric (e.g., some sort of competence framework) that is applied to all participants and which, in this case, is partly arbitrary and open to considerable interpretation. Foucault proposes three mechanisms, each of which applies to elite talent. Participation in talent programmes raises a person’s visibility. Participants are exposed to scrutiny via their performance in a programme whereas the judges are often absent, looking on from a distance. Power operates through remote surveillance and this imposes a level of discipline which makes participants more governable—an argument developed in more detail later in this chapter. Second, individuality. Exposure to talent development enables organizations to compare individuals, to categorize them and to rank them. Third, participants are turned into documented cases that contain the history of each person for comparative purposes. An HR department may keep records of individuals so that future evaluations can be made in the context of the past, tracking progress and informing top management’s decisions about the individual’s career path.

In Foucault’s terms, power is a property of relationships that is exercised in action rather than something that is located at a particular place or point (Townley, 2005). Elite talent management is an arena in which power is distributed and exercised. One way in which this occurs is through knowledge transfer since good talent programmes should expand the knowledge that participants, including the judges, have of each other, of how the organization works and of what business issues are occupying the minds of top managers. As participants expand their knowledge of colleagues and of organizational priorities, the power relations that they have with others in the organization will inevitably change. Mabey and Finch-Lees (2010), for instance, note that learning at lower management levels can meet with resistance at higher levels because learning lower down can challenge or threaten existing power structures. This is not to say new power structures are used inefficiently or deviously; much good may accrue to the organization from the altered power relationships among talent programme participants and between them and their colleagues outside the programme.

While Foucault tells us much about how power operates, this chapter turns to Norbert Elias’s (1983) influential analyses of court society to better understand elitist forms of talent management (see also Lever & Swailes, 2017 on this topic). Elias introduced figurational or process sociology which focuses on understanding how networks of interdependent people evolve across time. For Elias, individuals regulate their behaviour and discipline themselves because they see advantages in doing so; the potential advantages of career development in its broadest sense seem likely therefore to influence how talent pool members will behave.

Elias’s focus on relations of power resonates strongly with Foucault’s notion of power and its polymorphous location in all social relations, but there is for Elias ‘a more direct, unmediated relationship between a particular social figuration, a specific patterning of social relationships, and the personality structures and forms of interaction which they produce in individual actors’ (van Krieken, 1990: 5: emphasis in original). These insights are significant, as the growth of organizational research making use of Eliasian analysis (see Dolan & Connolly, 2017; van Iterson, Mastenbroek, Newton, & Smith, 2002) confirms. Newton and Smith (2002) reaffirm this importance succinctly:

Elias is important because his work brings together in one ‘take’ the nexus of power, emotion, subjectivity, conflict and control, and shows how they undergo long-term transformations. He moves quickly and skilfully between these different perspectives, giving the reader a dynamic, multi-dimensional, picture. (Newton & Smith, 2002, viii)

Our launch point for this chapter is to examine the mechanisms though which power can be exercised in elitist talent programmes. To do this, we juxtapose Elias’s analysis of court society with the ways that elitist talent programmes might operate. In both cases there is an elite, but within the elite there is a hierarchy; nobles and courtiers parallel a hierarchy of executives and ambitious managers. In both cases, a person’s behaviour has a large influence on their standing and on their prospects for advancement in the hierarchy. In both cases, there is competition for scarce attention from the top. By examining power and control in this way, the chapter helps to shed some light on how elite talent management operates. Our focus is on the behaviour that might be expected to occur in and around talent pools; we are less concerned here with the processes leading up to a person’s inclusion in a talent pool.

By focusing on elite talent programmes, we are not concerned with the use of ‘talent’ as a catch-all term to describe the employees in a workforce or as a synonym for the presumed talent at large in a national or global labour force. Our focus is inside organizations, on small sub-sets of individuals that have been selected for some sort of advanced management and leadership development. Prior to inclusion in an elite pool, individuals may have encountered robust performance appraisal and mapping onto a performance/promotability matrix such as the nine-box grid (Sparrow, Scullion, & Tarique, 2014b). Once in the pool, development typically involves experiences such as higher exposure to senior management thinking, mentoring, 360° feedback, involvement in high value projects, and ongoing evaluation of future potential. The individual’s performance in the talent pool can have a big influence on their future with the organization and beyond.

Figurational Sociology: From Court to Contemporary Organizations

Making connections between how people were behaving in the French royal courts during the seventeenth century and modern society may seem rather optimistic. However, Elias (1983, 2000) shows very convincingly how the courts of the nobility were instrumental in what he called the civilizing process. In this chapter, we argue that Elias’s ideas are still relevant and are useful in understanding developments in organization and in how talent is managed. Elias’s analysis of Court Society compares the rationality of the aristocratic court elite and the professional-bourgeois at the French Court. Both of these groups looked for long-term rather than short-term gains but, according to Elias, the professional-bourgeois were more concerned with improving their financial situation (economic capital) than enhancing their status and prestige (symbolic capital) so sought after by the Aristocracy (see van Krieken, 1998).

Behaviour that was regarded by the Protestant bourgeois (Weber, 1978) as ‘irrational’ was highly regarded in court society because, Elias argues, an individual had to adapt and display their status in order to maintain their position at the court of Louis XIV. Affective outbursts were extremely problematical, first because they exposed a person’s true feelings and second because they were not in keeping with the etiquette on which court society was based. As van Krieken (2012) notes,

Court Society established a particular psychological disposition, a certain habitus1 organized around a constitutive theatricality and heightened visibility both upwards, to one’s superiors, and downwards, to one’s inferiors. The court itself was perpetually performative and subject to intense and constant competition according to ever shifting rules and norms, leading to… the production of ever-changing favourites surrounded by their own networks of patronage and favouritism. (2012: 22)

While courtiers worked to continually display and represent their identity, their power at court was closely connected to their relationships with others and an individual’s power could disappear just as fast as their recognition and their status. In court society, the nobility needed the King to hold their position within the wider figuration and the King needed the nobility since the Crown’s absolute superiority and power lay ‘only in a carefully calculated strategy which was governed by the peculiar structure of court society in the narrow sense, and more broadly by society at large’ (Elias, 1983: 3). The nobility provided the King with the basis for a collective culture and also acted as a buffer between the monarchy and the general population. In theory, the nobility might have conspired to outwit and confront the King had they wished to but the intense, even if somewhat latent, competitiveness of life at court effectively nullified this possibility, and the King knew it.

As other groups in society adopted and copied the etiquette and manners emanating from the aristocracy, as they too sought higher status and prestige, so the habits and manners that had once set the aristocracy apart from the rest of society gradually became less significant (for the aristocracy at least). This created a situation in which the aristocracy had to continually refine their manners to keep them socially distinct and differentiated (Elias, 1983). Elias provides a deeper analysis of Court Society in The Civilizing Process (Elias, 2012) in which he argues that codes of behaviour that arose at court diffused more widely through processes of state formation. In the workings of the court, individuals put pressure on each other such that ‘civilité’ became a central feature. Likewise, Elias argues that as the density of social relations increased during modernity there was a corresponding impact on the ways that people thought and expressed themselves. It was through these processes, Elias argues, that the civilizing process in nation-states moved forward. As social and economic complexity intensified and as the number of interactions with more people increased, so individuals were obliged to adapt their behaviour or face the consequences of not doing so.

According to van Krieken (2012: 22), the basic elements of court behaviour namely rivalry, opportunity, differentiation, self-discipline, and a desire to get closer to the top now constitute the core of a ‘nascent celebrity rationality’. van Krieken argues that, reflecting developments in court society, organizing is increasingly built around a habitus or psychological disposition towards our superiors and inferiors using competitive strategies that are self-differentiating. Celebrity rationality, van Krieken (2012) argues, later migrated out of the confines of court society, and as these processes evolved the courtier became differentiated into a number of different social types – the public servant, the politician’s advisor, the manager, but also the celebrity, the witty, beautiful and talented focus of public scrutiny and attention with access to power’ (2012: 22). The ‘talented self’ thus became increasingly performative over time and responsive to constantly changing norms and forms of competition that blurred the boundaries between private and public life (van Iterson et al., 2002).

This chapter is particularly concerned with examining how these processes work in talent management. We are treating talent management as a relatively new organizational innovation—at least in name only—while recognizing that organizations have a much longer tradition of management and leadership development. Lever (2011) illustrates how these organizational forms persisted over time through an analysis of cross sector partnership working in the UK under a New Labour government. He shows how, much like in regional courts in earlier periods, successive New Labour governments pursued their own political targets by implementing strategies that set the managers of community and citywide partnerships (and thus the partnerships themselves) against each other.

Only when the partnership game was played in ways that were consistent with the government’s dominant policy initiatives did individual managers (and hence the partnerships they managed) receive the recognition and the resources needed to be successful. This often happened when partnership managers realized that their success and that of their partnership depended on performing in a particular way, which sometimes meant that they could not address all the concerns held by community-based organizations. Lever’s wider point, following Elias , is that the government’s approach, in the same way that it did at the courts, paralysed rebellion (de Swaan, 1990) from within by setting individuals and partnership groups against each other.

In a similar fashion, talent pools can be seen as distinctive organizational communities (Swailes, 2013); after all, they supposedly contain the hand-picked ‘stars’ of the future. Again, following Elias, employees operating within the community from which talent is drawn, often a well-defined workforce, will only begin to receive recognition and resources when they can demonstrate that they have, using their talents, signed-up to the organization’s wider agenda as it is made flesh by senior management. Individuals who respond to top management’s agenda and who are seen to align with its priorities are much better placed and more likely to capture executive attention than individuals who are not playing the game. Looked at in this way the talented are, to some extent, those individuals who perform in the right way; likewise, individuals who are overlooked for talent pools are likely to be those who do not perform in the right way. The ways in which people perform, we suggest, therefore have a bearing over and above their true performance and potential on the extent to which they would be deemed talented or not.

If selection for talent pools can be likened to playing a game, and we do not intend to mean that in a cynical way, then to be successful, Weber’s notions of self-observation and emotional suppression come into play (Weber, 1989 [1904]). Individuals who can suppress their emotions and impose self-control in ways that match the rules of the game will have better outcomes than those who, perhaps because of principle or inability, are unable to. However, in contrast to Weber’s rational individualism and ideal types, Elias’s ideas about figurations help to understand that the social processes now associated with talent management, at least of the elite form, are real types that are rooted in long-term historical trends centring around organization, power, and control (see van Krieken, 2006).

Of particular interest for this chapter is how these organizational forms and managerial subjectivities persist within talent management programmes over time. Individuals entering talent programmes are observed by executives and, through the nature of their interactions with others, are encouraged to develop individual strategies that foster organizational stability that is consistent with the interests of powerful groups and their accompanying elite discourses. We suggest that this mechanism of organizational control is widely used because it protects executives and powerful elites from the threat of collective strategies emerging at lower levels that may threaten their positions should they be realized. Elias’s work is particularly poignant here because it shows how ‘[c]eremonies and etiquette became essential instruments in the distribution of power’ (Sofer, 2013: 28).

Figurations and Talent Management

The organizational talent literature seldom recognizes that talent management is a continuing process. In common with most management subjects, it is perhaps easier to study it as a static ideal type (Weber, 1978) because cross-sectional research methods are generally easier to use than the longitudinal methods that would be required to generate deeper understandings of underlying processes (Elias, 2012). Nevertheless, today’s judgement about a person’s management potential are inevitably influenced by past events, interactions, and exchanges between people, particularly the decision makers, and are inevitably going to be influenced by events and interactions that occur in the future.

Elias shows that although Louis XIV was surrounded by ambitious courtiers, he protected himself from them by creating spaces in which courtiers deployed strategies against each other. By grouping an organization’s future leaders, stars and celebrities in talent pools, senior managers in a similar way alleviate threats to themselves—in effect using management strategies that paralyse rebellion from within (de Swaan, 1990; Lever, 2011).

In The Civilizing Process (Elias, 2012) Elias argues that people are very careful not to say or do things that might portray them as being unpredictable or as being difficult to control. The greater the awareness people have of their surroundings the more sensitive they become to shame or disfavour. A recent example is how individuals have become sensitized to talk about race and sexuality following decades of information about the harm caused by discrimination and the primacy of human rights. Fear of causing offence or of creating a poor impression forces people to contain their natural emotional responses to situations but, following Elias, this makes it much easier for those same people to be controlled by those who sit in judgement and spread information about what is right and proper (Smith, 2002).

One mechanism for this is through what van Krieken (2012: 87) calls ‘celebrity gossip’ which can be used to ‘communicate useful information but also simply to pass the time’. Gossip plays a role in communicating the values and expectations of a group or an individual and deliberate ‘leaks’ of information can be used to sound out an idea. Top managers, for instance, might rely on gossip to communicate their views on performance expectations, their views of an individual, or on the forms of behaviour that signal high potential. Individuals in talent pools might respond to a piece of gossip by, for example, speaking out for or against an event, an idea or another individual and in doing so signal their moral stance in an attempt to advance whatever personal agenda they are trying to push. Thus employees, whether they are in a talent pool or not, become vulnerable to suppression and control because of their reluctance to risk the disfavour that they would accrue by challenging a formally or informally communicated description of what high performance means in a particular workplace or by speaking up for someone who has fallen into disfavour. Of course, not all employees feel so constrained but the controlling effect should be significant for those who have career ambitions with an organization or in a close-knit sector.

Talent pools could also act in a similar way to league tables of public sector organizations that rely on a wide range of indicators. A position near the top is taken as a job well done; a position near the bottom can be used by the media as a reason to put executives on television to confess their failings and to publicly express how they must work harder in the future. This ritual regularly played out in the UK at least is a form of public humiliation and social control; displeasure is shown, rapid improvements are expected. Although talent programmes do not generate top to bottom league tables, something akin to a league table is produced when nine-box grid (mapping performance and potential on a 3×3 matrix) or similar strategies are used to categorize employees. Where an organization runs multiple talent pools at the same time, for example, for technical specialists, for managers, and/or for next generation leaders, employees are increasingly segregated into an elite future leaders group and a lower league. Open and visible entry criteria coupled with hearsay communicated by participants’ gossip provide a means of self-improvement to employees holding career aspirations and ambitions.

Another mechanism for imposing discipline occurs when members are exposed to a risk of shame by failure, during or after their inclusion in a talent pool, and of being sent back to the rank and file with little prospect of a second chance. Responsible employers should do this with discretion, but such actions send a signal to others that image, performance, and potential must be upheld or there will be consequences. Talent programmes also send a signal to employees who see themselves as underdogs or as out of the loop with restricted prospects by virtue of their particular roles and/or some aspect of the ways in which they conduct themselves. Competence frameworks, for example, provide a visible and formal, even if sometimes convoluted, statement of the behaviour and competences that the organization values. Frameworks embodying talent criteria signal that opportunities exist for employees who can perform in the right way. Employees can see for themselves how far they match the criteria and this helps to maintain a certain type of order. The need for difficult discussions about why someone doesn’t make the grade is reduced; self-assessment against the criteria, and against the people that they can see are included in talent pools, means that employees can figure out how well they compare.

Much like social relations in court society, this competitive element helps to maintain workforce differentiation on the basis of fit with visible leadership criteria. The organizational subjectivity and behavioural norms that are created in talent pools create social boundaries around organizational spaces that are normally only seen if and when codes of etiquette and behaviour are breached. Following Elias, talent has to be seen as a function of the connections that a person has with other individuals in the wider organizational figuration. An individual with connections to high potential and/or celebrified colleagues is thus much more likely to attract top management’s attention than one who is not. Individuals in talent pools have instant access to increasing their connections within the wider organizational figuration and as a consequence improving their prospects for power within that organizational space. This effect has been found with management team members and those with CEO status (Graffin, Wade, Porac, & McNamee, 2008). From van Krieken (2012: 56) and drawing on the logic of the economics of attention (see Lanham, 2006 and Chap.  1), if executive A starts paying attention to talent B, then the attention that talent C gives to B will tend to increase. If another executive also starts to pay attention to talent B, then the pull on talent C’s attention to talent B will increase further.

Where talent inclusion criteria are open and when talent pools operate openly, they act as reference points showing others what, over and above having certain skills and capabilities, they need to have to get ahead to ‘foreground oneself in relation to vast, anonymous business and government organizations seemingly beyond any individual’s control (van Krieken, 2012: 126). Inclusion in structured talent pools enhances an individual’s exposure and networks. These, in turn, help to establish a kind of minor celebrity status for participants in the eyes of the grander celebrities—the executive elite. A production line for minor celebrities is created through the ongoing opportunities for expanding networks and self-promotion that arise inside and outside the social spaces that talent pools create.

Even minor celebrity status should deliver benefits consistent with the ‘Matthew effect’ (Adamsen, 2016; Merton, 1988). People who are enjoying a level of popularity attract more attention and resources for work comparable to that produced by others who are not as well known. When information is in oversupply, ‘what is in short supply is the means to discriminate between what is on offer, and the capacity to attract attention’ (van Krieken, 2012: 55). Elite talent pools create a mechanism through which attention , in short supply, can be distributed in a seemingly efficient way. For sure, the talented are exposed to greater scrutiny from executives and that carries a level of risk, but the potential gains in economic capital and of greater celebrity status are considerable.

The talented, of course, pay a price through greater and increasing observation of their performance. The self becomes increasingly performative and has to respond to constantly changing expectations and forms of competition that blur the boundary between public and private life (van Iterson et al., 2002). As in court society, the talented have to continually display their status in order to maintain it and survive. Their identity is highly representational and if things go wrong then the recognition they enjoy in their position will change along with the power relations underpinning it. If they are to keep and consolidate their position, they must build and maintain appropriate alliances. As in court society, any perceived challenge to the established order is likely to bring about a fall from grace (Elias, 1983).

Concluding Thoughts

While the human capital created out of talent pools is in one sense held by individuals, it can only be deployed within specific organizational figurations, the networks, connections, and other social relations individuals are involved in, which means that it can only be realized in the specific contexts on which it is dependent (see also Groysberg (2012) on the portability of talent among investment analysts). Having higher skills and knowledge from talent development is one thing, but until they are turned towards actions they will bring about little change. Indeed, the extent that they can be switched on and activated is closely linked to an organization’s structures of power and control.

While explorations of power in management is often revealing, it is often difficult to come up with practical guidance (Trehan & Rigg, 2011). However, a practical implication from this chapter for people involved in designing or running talent programmes is that failure to appreciate organizational politics may lead to frustration and wasted effort. Appreciating and working around politics is a difficult challenge since the overseers of talent programmes may be using individuals to deliberately create inertia in power/control systems and to stabilize their own positions. This effect was noticed by Kamoche (2000) who found that leadership programmes designed to induct employees into the workings of higher management and which were seen as a transition for anyone looking for promotion actually served to identify people who fitted with the culture at the top and ‘effectively emasculated potentially deviant and non-conformist individual interests’.

Turning to future research, an Eliasian approach suggests that individuals in talent pools are likely to impose order on themselves. Most are in a double-bind; being expected to show imagination and drive while simultaneously coming to terms with only modest chances of progressing much further. How then do participants cope with changing self-esteem in the gaze of executives, colleagues, and family? Future studies of talent pool participants could usefully investigate the extent to which individuals do regulate their behaviour, their reasons for doing so, what types of behaviour are regulated and in what circumstances behaviour is regulated. Further work is also needed to understand more about the effects on people who do not make it through talent pools and who are passed over for accelerated promotion or who receive promotions but then derail. Based on her study of derailed talent, Ross (2013, 2018), for instance, argues that talent management should be more understanding of and sympathetic to a person’s derailment potential and this more humanistic stance deserves more consideration.


  1. 1.

    Habitus can be thought of as the embodied habits and manners of social structures, a psychological disposition.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Huddersfield Business SchoolUniversity of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK

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