Newton’s laws of motion afford the quantification of the motion of matter (i.e. objects) and correspondingly by way of calculation the determination of the movement of the objects. It is because of these laws we can determine the effect of two objects interacting (colliding), such as when a golf club hits a golf ball or what happens when we try to move a large object without applying an adequate external force.
Given that the conception of our system of economics was informed by Newtonian mechanics, it is not surprising to see J.B. Watson’s and B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism—the use of the stimulus-response—informing the methods of management. Just as Newton was able to precisely determine the movement of objects, management theorist and practitioners sought a similar result for the behavior of people.
Physics of External Forces
That is, human action is viewed in large part, if not wholly, as a response to external stimuli. The implication being that without the introduction of external forces, action is not expected. Further assuming people act in response to a stimulus, applying the right stimulus people will then act as desired. Thus, management’s responsibility is to provide the right external force (i.e. extrinsic motivation).
What makes this feasible is the unquestioned belief that people are economically or materially driven. This driving force—to maximize one’s material self-interest— acts universally on all of us. Effectually it has been made to be the equivalent of gravity for human action. The following excerpt from It’s the EconoME, Stupid reveals the limiting effect of this assumption.
S: I am not quite clear on what you are getting at.
Q: Well, we can choose to structure life—bringing (our sense of) order to life—by seeking to satisfy the desires emerging out of our animal nature or by appealing to our higher, uniquely human nature.
S: Are you saying we can either act like animals or we can act like people; that we can be barbarians or we can be civilized?
Q: Not exactly, although I suspect we’ve all met some animals that have acted far more civilized than some people we know.
What I am saying is that we can choose to focus attention on our lower level desires as a way of ordering our world or we can choose to appeal to our higher level nature. We can create societal systems that either cause individuals to structure their lives consistent with the needs and wants we share with all other animals or that cause individuals to orient their lives consistent with realizing higher level capabilities that only human beings have.
Recall that we discussed earlier that if we set up the conditions such that people’s options are limited to choosing between pleasure and pain in the next moment, then it would be a mistake to conclude that the primary driver in people’s behavior is pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding—these are lower level behavioral drivers we share with all other animals.
S: So, if we order life according to the notion that people are pleasure- seeking and pain-avoiding, then are we guiding people to order life according to their animal nature?
Q: Yes, and as a result we are limiting the human potential that lies in every person. It causes individuals not to recognize the value of being human; often times this awakening is only realized when a person faces the prospect of his/her life coming to an end.
S: So we are more than intelligent animals capable of ordering life according to the satisfaction of selfish passions in the moment?
Q: Yes, life need not be structured according to this very limited view of what it means to be human…
Many of the popular methods of management, such as pay-for-performance incentive systems, merit pay systems, rank and yank systems, annual performance appraisal systems, management by exception/results, and management by objective—which continue to be taught in almost every business school—are grounded in the stimulus-response model of human behavior. While the merits of Newton’s laws of motion are remarkable, it does not make them everywhere applicable. Such teachings and practices reflect the application of the science of the external (material) world to the phenomena of the interior (non-material) world.
It is inappropriate to apply the science of objects in motion to the realm of human behavior. Effectively, in so doing, subjects have to be related to as objects for the physics of objects to apply, which is an inhumane and thus immoral way of treating people. We are not objects we are subjects, and we have the right to be treated as such.
As subjects we have the capability and the right to choose how we will be-in-the-world. We have free will and the right to exercise it. But, with everyone directed to strive for the same thing—material gain—free will is cancelled out. This gravitational-like force imposed by both the system of economics and management practice is just that, an imposition.
Same But Different
Inherently people don’t act primarily as a result of forces external to them. Each individual is guided by intangibles (e.g. beliefs, values, attitudes, feelings etc) that lie within. In each and every moment, an individual has a choice of not only whether to act but also how to act. This choice involves a process that includes the guidance of the intangible contents of mind. The strength of each to influence one’s choices is associated with the amount of energy that each presents in a given situation. The more firmly held a belief, or the stronger an emotion, the more influence—the greater its energy—in the decision. Moreover, each of us has the freedom to change what he/she holds in mind as well. That is, changing one’s mind is our choice, an act of free will. Human behavior is far too complex to fit neatly into a linearly deterministic stimulus-response (or goal-action) model.
Physics of the Invisible
So if the physics of the external material world is not appropriate to inform methods and practices of management what is? What science helps us understand the world of the non-material and intangible? Quantum physics, the physics of the subatomic world. A world where things—subatomic particles—are not objects at all but rather energies (quanta) that show tendencies—based on probabilities—to exist or happen. The manifestation of these interconnections of energy is variation in the observed phenomena.
So how do we know these quanta exist? By their effects! Quite analogously we’ve never seen, touched, tasted or smelled a belief, but we surely have observed its influence in people’s choices. At the subatomic level there is indeterminacy in that these interconnections do not take place at a definite place and time, but rather exhibit a likelihood of occurring—hence variation is inherent in our world. Moreover we know choices aren’t deterministic but rather probabilistic; that groups of people holding a particular belief in mind will show a tendency—a probability—to act in a like manner, unless of course they change their mind. Thus certainty in the future is not a possibility, and thus neither is control of it.
So what must management/leaders do? A good first step is to cease driving for results and begin enabling potential—be a mentor of people, not a mechanic of the machine. This means not treating people as objects but rather relating to them as subjects, core-to-core. To do this those in authority will have to stop relying on positional authority and begin developing their personhood as a way of influence.
But how do you manage in a complex and chaotic world that is influenced by the energy of intangibles that show a tendency to happen? How do you manage when things are so variable? First, learn how to think statistically and cease managing by exception and by the numbers. An important principle for guiding action is that an understanding of the causes of variation requires first an understanding of the variation caused. That is, learn how to interpret patterns of variation for the purpose of transforming them into knowledge. Greater knowledge means sounder decisions and more effective leadership.
The human world is a highly relational and variable world; it is not an independent acting deterministic world, so let’s cease managing as if it is!