A recent HBR article (Why companies are so bad at treating employees like people) by Herminia Ibarra speaks to the need to re-invent the workplace if there is to be human development at work. As Ibarra characterizes it, this re-invention requires “reimagining complex organizations so that they are more human and agile.” The implication seems to be that making organizations more human and agile involves solving the “thorny problem of developing people.”
Why is developing people a thorny problem? Does the thorniness imply that people aren’t in favor or desire personal development, that they resist any real opportunity for personal development? I suspect that if we were to survey people asking if they were in favor of personal development (yes or no) the vast majority would check yes! So what makes developing people a thorny problem?
Steven Kerr, in a 1975 Academy of Management Journal article titled “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B” shed light on the folly of those in authority who create reward systems to promote goal directed behavior—leveraging fear and holding people accountable—while often hoping for other behavior (i.e. creative or team building) as well. Since these practices are a pathway to mistrust, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the thorny problem with developing people is not primarily a function of the people but rather of the system of the organization itself. More specifically, the root cause of the difficulty lies in the system of orientation (the values and beliefs, the worldview) especially among those in authority within the organization.
In The Image of Our Worldview
The worldview of the business-minded—if not the vast majority of people in the industrialized world —is an egoistic materialist mechanistic view of the world. It is this worldview that underlies the capitalist system wherein domination over Nature, material self-interest, wealth accumulation, and independence of individuals are its precepts and our guiding principles of behavior. Enacting these precepts has led us in creating a less-than-human, if not an inhumane world. Consequently it is no surprise that we find individuals treating others as means, as objects, as tools in service to their own material interests. Accordingly, the only value a person presents is instrumental value. In such a world, trust is rare and so too is joy. The only thing we can trust is the fact that others, in a what’s in it for me world, with more information, more power will take advantage of those with less. The physical and psychological violence we inflict upon each other, all for material gain, is astounding, if not insane!
The business-minded, intent on maximizing (their) material gain, design and manage organizations as profit-producing machines—humanness is expunged out of what is inherently a human system. Accordingly management practices are created to exercise control over and drive the machine and every one in it for growth in material profit—human development is at most a very faint blip on the screen, if it is evident at all. Results are what matter most, if not solely! As Peter Drucker asserted, “so much of what we call management is making it difficult for people to work.”
Currently management methods informed by the materialistic mechanistic worldview has managers leveraging basic human “deficit-needs—employing fear-based carrot-and-stick incentive methods—as the means of getting individuals to do what they (management) desire by making the satisfaction of these basic needs conditional on performance in relation to what is desired. With deficit-need gratification in doubt the individual becomes captured by fear—the fear that his/her needs won’t be met. This fear keeps the individual focused on deficit-gratification and correspondingly on things outside of him/her self. In other words, fear-based methods turn people’s attention toward things of extrinsic value and away from intrinsic human potential” (The Intent of Business, p 137.
The common practice is management-by-measureable-objective—target/goal setting, incentive setting, accountability measures predominate. Seemingly the business-minded are enthralled with analytics. As explained in Managing Performance, the basic idea is “to set a target performance level, legislate a performance policy requiring every individual to perform at or above it. Hold every individual accountable for attaining this performance level—not allowing variation period!” By these tactics and a management-by-exception approach—no understanding of variation here—it is quite clear that there is little to no sincere and authentic concern for the wellbeing of people; all that counts is meeting the numerical goal, by whatever means. As the (ancient Chinese) saying goes, a narrow focus of attention leads to a large measure of heedlessness.
However, even though most managers would like to have everyone meet or exceed the target, this is not possible without deceit. That is to say, it is not possible for most to even perform at this arbitrarily set high level without cooking the books (i.e. fudging the numbers or rigging the system in their favor). Management-by-the-numbers is a fool’s errand.
This single-minded addiction-like focus of attention on the pursuit of material growth causes those in authority to create a workplace environment devoid of the very things all people require for psychological health—trust, love, meaning, unconditional respect and healthful relationships. Consequently today’s workplace is a (psychological) space wherein the human spirit is suppressed, unable to fully express itself: A space where human potential could not possibly actualize except by chance alone. So not only is attention turned away from human development, the lack of trust created in the grab-for-profit’s wake makes human development close to impossible. It is not just the fact some practices, like the annual performance appraisal system used in most organizations, are anachronistic to developing people as Ibara asserts, it is that human development within an egoistic materialist mechanistic worldview is an anachronism—hence the thorniness.
Change the System
If human development is to become probable, then organizations must be re-created as a living system, a human activity system, as a social system of humankind. The organizations we create must serve humankind, not conversely. Organizations can no longer be profit-producing machines as if they were comprised of objects/its acting upon other objects/its. To this end, the system of orientation in the mind of those in authority must change, and correspondingly so too the intent of business. This is not a change in the system but a change of the system. As Einstein is often quoted “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them!”
A fundamental change in management practice is absolutely necessary. W. Edwards Deming, in the preface of Out of the Crisis, said, “transformation of American style of management is not a job of reconstruction, nor is it revision. It requires a whole new structure, from foundation upward.” Currently management methods informed by the materialistic mechanistic worldview has managers leveraging “our shared deficit-needs—employing fear-based carrot-and-stick incentive methods—as the means of getting individuals to do what they (management) desire by making the satisfaction of these basic needs conditional on performance in relation to what is desired. With deficit-need gratification in doubt the individual becomes captured by fear—the fear that his/her needs won’t be met. This fear keeps the individual focused on deficit-gratification and correspondingly on things outside of him/her self. In other words, fear-based methods turn people’s attention toward things of extrinsic value and away from intrinsic human potential” (The Intent of Business, p 137. Because our development depends on it, it is essential that the satisfaction of our deficit needs not be in doubt.
However, informed by a living systems worldview the methods of management change from enacting fear to enacting trust as the basis of management practice. Accordingly management practice could no longer make contingent the satisfaction of peoples’ basic human (deficit) needs—no longer creating doubt and fear. Instead management methods guided by a deep sense of care for people and life itself creates a trust-based order in the workplace. When there is trust, development becomes probable. In short, the needed change in management is from fear-based to care-based management.
People must trust (feel and know) that others (particularly those in management) care about them. Care-based methods use positive energy to develop and sustain trust. Rather than controlling people’s behavior through the negative energy of fear, care-based practices seek to engage people’s capacity for self-initiation. It entails relating to and engaging with others in a humanly productive way as fellow self-initiating human beings as a way of enacting trust. It is akin to what Erich Fromm referred to as productive orientation “which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence” (Sane Society, p. 32).
Care-based versus fear-based management is analogous to acting with versus acting upon others. It is the difference between acknowledging the inherent value of people versus recognizing people only because of their instrumental value in service one’s self-interests. Care-based management rests upon having respect for the person as a person and embracing the responsibility for his/her development as a person. People need to know they are valued as a human being, because they are a person and not because they are instrumental or useful to another’s self-interest.
With care-based management, one’s role is not to drive and control but to support, guide and facilitate people’s development as they perform the organization’s work. As a result there is an integration of people’s development and their work in the organization. “In short management’s role is to foster and develop humanly productive relationships and in so doing the work of the enterprise will be accomplished with quality and with joy” (The Intent of Business, p 180).
The Root of It All
Quoting Herminia Ibarra “the time is ripe for reimagining complex organizations so that they are more human and more agile.” While changing from hierarchical structures to flat structures, or to more flexible work hours, or to more frequent (if not continuous) performance feedback might make the workplace more tolerable, these tactics don’t address the root of it all. People need to know they are valued as people because they are human beings, not because they are instrumental or useful in service to another’s self-interest.
It is not about making organizations more human to benefit the organization, it is about organizations actually becoming/being human (centered) systems. Until we make (i.e. envision and create) organizations as social systems in service to humankind—not as profit-producing machines in service to wealth accumulation—human development will remain unrealized, a fantasy. We mustn’t forget that human development is not possible within a system of orientation that doesn’t honor, respect and value people’s humanness.
Where a sincere and deep sense of caring for people is not evident, human development is not probable. Our worldview must change and correspondingly with it our intent—individually and organizationally—if we are to realize the development of our humanness. What matters most is what most matters!