Thursday, January 03, 2013

Theories of Human Nature & Management


"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence." 
- James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 55


With these words Mr. Madison was way ahead of his time.
I've lately been enchanted with Sumantra Ghoshal's 2005 paper "Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices."  It is most intriguing not as a management manifesto, but rather as a philosophical treatise on the evolution of predominant theories of human nature in recent generations.

Ghoshal takes us through step by step: From Milton Friedman's (1962) identification of the "negative problem" (i.e. social science has focused too much on enabling good people to do good; it has neglected to address that man is imperfect and can be harmful and opportunistic) to Martin Seligman's (2003) introduction of "positive psychology" (i.e. we should focus as much on strengths and ability to do good as we do on our weaknesses and vices), we see a tipping of Madison's balanced view from one extreme to another.  

These trends in social consciousness are reflected in the development of management practices around Theory X and Theory Y thinking (respectively), to use the oft-quoted terms coined by McGregor (1960). Today, in 2013, we're still riding the Theory Y wave of positive psychology. Meyers-Briggs evaluations, strengths tests such as the popular Clifton StrengthsFinder, and Reflected Best Self exercises (such as the one I was asked to complete at the beginning of my master's program) are trendy, and articles with titles like "How to Play to Your Strengths" and "The Instrumental Self as an Agent of Change" contribute to the fortification of an academic and management environment which could be described as a sort of 21st-century self-centered humanism.

Knowing who you are, your passions, your strengths - those are all good things. When kept in the peripheral of our world perspective, such self-knowledge allows us to be effective and efficient with our time and resources.  But I fear that these are drifting too far toward the center of our focus.  I've been asked to fill out a few too many surveys on "what my personality says I'd be theoretically great at" and not enough on "practical things I should really know how to do".  Our management education and practices are now focused on empowering people to pursue their passions but I fear that we're losing focus of the nitty-gritty tools and basic skills that will enable them to do so.  

I've mentored far too many young students who have a big, vague vision of a position into which they'd like to get some day (positions which, they feel, would suit their personalities and strengths in an abstract sense), but they have no idea - not even a hint of an inclination - of the specific skills they should develop now in order to get there.

I think this generation of management students could benefit from a little reality check - a reminder that a business can't thrive on teambuilding alone. Discussing our individual and collective strengths can help us develop a good strategy, but then we have to actually do something!

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