Management & Human Nature: Are People Basically “Good”?

Continued from previous post…


 “If you want to create a certain result, you must first create the conditions that will absolutely force that result to occur.”

Kazuma Tateishi, Founder of Omron

I first became aware of the Theory of Provided Conditions through a fortuitous connection made years ago with two American mentors, both extremely wise and contrarian management consultants, both of whom were preaching a management approach that “taps into the power of the human mind.” They called it “mind technologies.”

That’s where I learned about the theoretical side of management. But the cornerstone of my belief in “provided-conditions theory” comes from real-life experiences working in and comparing Japanese and American-run organizations. I was trained to manage by these principles long before I even knew there was a name for it. And I saw firsthand its effectiveness in producing results in Japanese-run factories.

On the flip side, I was surprised, disappointed and greatly intrigued to learn that provided-conditions philosophy engendered such strong resistance from American managers, a  bias that tends to be prohibitive to developing a continuous improvement culture. So I started digging.

Keep in mind that the resistance from American organizations wasn’t always overt, so it took some time to figure out that there even was resistance. People have a knack for subtly dragging their feet in inconspicuous, unthreatening ways, all the time smiling and agreeing with you. I was naive to believe them! (The litmus test happens when something goes wrong: does that person take responsibility?)

This all happened after I entered corporate America for the first time in the early 90s, right after spending several years engaged exclusively with Japanese transplants. Suddenly surrounded by Americans, I remember discussing provided-conditions  theory with whomever would listen, and getting mixed reviews. Some Americans  flat-out rejected the assumption that responsibility should “roll uphill” based on the personal-responsibility rap. (Their honesty was refreshing!)

Yet others expressed enthusiastic support for the notion of responsibility rolling upward, some even went as far as saying: “If my department isn’t producing results, then I’ll man up and take the hit.” Or something to that effect.

Sounds good when you say it. Problem is rarely do you see an American manager man up and take the hit. He’s usually too busy covering his ass with excuses and finger pointing, deflecting blame any way he can.

Taking value judgments out of the picture, this defensive behavior is quite natural and predictable under the fear-inducing conditions the American manager has been provided by those above him. Truth is people at all levels are scared, usually about the wrong things. (They should be more scared of their company not being competitive than whether their boss likes them.) The reality is that no matter how nice and civil everyone behaves at work, someone above you has the power to terminate you tomorrow. Everyone is so nice until the day they decide you’re expendable, when they send a security guard to coldly escort you out the door.

Sound like an exaggeration? Sadly I’ve seen this happen to good people over the years, too often for bogus political reasons. And equally too often the folks at the top who were making critical strategic mistakes stayed employed, some were even rewarded for failure. Their trick to pulling this off was their ability to deflect blame rather than “take the hit”.

No surprise that an environment of fear creates conditions that rig the system against effectively employing The Theory of Provided Conditions. Ironically, if you accept the premise that provided conditions influence human behavior and outputs, the resulting defensive behavior of American employees is a logical output of the fearful conditions provided from above. The difference is that TOPC assumes that responsibility rolls uphill, while in corporate America it tends to roll the other way, usually in the form of blame and punishment.

This is why the idea of finding cultural variances that would allow a “provided-conditions” philosophy to work in Japan but not in the U.S. intrigues me. In the final analysis, it comes down to the values, assumptions and beliefs we hold near and dear in our respective cultures. All our outputs flow from this “spiritual” place.

At the top of my list of game-changing assumptions, is how our respective cultures characterize basic human nature.

Are People Basically Good?

In the previous post I alluded to the notion that, short of serious infractions such as sabotage, fighting or stealing, elite Japanese manufacturers generally don’t punish their operators. They start with the assumption that their employees have good intentions and are trying their best.

Acknowledging that “some folks just don’t care”, I agree with the Japanese that most normal, healthy human beings want to connect with quality, whether it’s at work, home or socially.

But it’s just an assumption, nothing more. What matters in a for-profit organization is the outputs the assumption does or doesn’t produce. Hence my bias toward believing in the basic goodness of people comes not from a place of idealism, but from the results I’ve seen flow from this assumption.

Problem is that too many American workplaces start with the opposite assumption, which goes a long way in explaining why they employ primarily punitive strategies to manage their staff, certainly the hourly employees. To use an extreme example, Henry Ford’s very early production line management method employed brutes to bully the line workers, all toward the goal of maximizing productivity, meaning that sometimes bathroom breaks, etc. were denied. Not to say that Henry Ford invented the approach, it’s been with mankind since forever. But American culture back then certainly allowed it to evolve (in the name of “efficiency”). In fairness we adjusted when things got out of hand–thanks to the power of unions–so conditions have absolutely improved for the worker historically. And yet a strain of that punitive bias still lingers in many American companies.

Lingering Spiritual Legacies

Digging deeper, the differences in assumptions about basic human nature can be observed in our ancient spiritual legacies as well, traditions that affect the way we behave even in modern times. Here’s a telling personal experience to paint the picture:

Years ago I was driving in the Chicago area with my Japanese wife. Suddenly a guy cut me off. I managed to avoid an accident but boy was I ticked. Naturally I screamed some choice expletives at my object of scorn. “You #$%&@ jerk!” 

I still clearly remember my wife turning to me in shock and saying, “Why are you yelling at him?”

I thought it was self-evident: “The jerk cut me off!

“He didn’t do it on purpose!” she said.

“Yes, I think he did!” I said with no clue what the guy’s intentions were. My frustration was further exacerbated by the appearance of my wife taking his side. (A glimpse at my immature side for sure.)

Of course my wife didn’t know the guy’s intentions either. Like me, she was making a knee-jerk assumption, the kind you make before you’re even conscious of it. I mention this because it’s the unconscious human responses that reveal most about one’s culture and personal character, the cultural “default mode” if you will. That’s why this particular example is so telling. Both of us were defaulting to the implicit values and assumptions taught and perpetuated in our respective cultures. The exchange really made me think and reflect.

The point here isn’t about who was right and who was wrong; we’ll never know the answer. What’s interesting is that I had already convicted the man for his “sin” of intentionally driving into my lane. Meanwhile my wife was giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming, as we both should have, that it was just an innocent human mistake.

So it begs the question: why might our raw, unfiltered reactions to this incident be so different?

Aside from the cultural dimension, it could be the idiosyncrasies of our respective personalities. It could also be our different interpretations of the situation as a driver versus passenger. It could be related to our genders. Likely it’s all of the above. But the crux of the analysis really boils down to our different cultural assumptions about human nature. Was the guy trying to “do good” or wasn’t he?

Digging even deeper, the West has Christianity, a religion that says we’re all born with original sin, or, said another way, we’re flawed and “guilty” from day one of our existence. Christianity’s “corrective action” in dealing with our original-sin-stained souls is performed through the ritual of baptism, a tradition designed to purify and save us.

Japanese Shinto in contrast, is a religion that believes all children are born pure–and then of course it all goes downhill from there! Shinto indeed has the tradition of baptism, but it’s all about chasing away evil spirits before they infect the child, not erasing an inherited sin. Hence, the assumption in the minds of the ancient Japanese is that humans were born “good”. This strand of DNA lingers today in Japan (except when it comes to their politicians).

It’s fascinating that these unconscious ancient cultural assumptions feed our behavior in every facet of our lives, when we’re driving our cars, disciplining our children, even working in our factories.

Thankfully the punitive brutes and thugs of yesteryear’s production lines are gone. Our laws and unions got rid of them (or in some cases just dressed them up in business suits). In place of overt physical and psychological intimidation, we now have a more subtle “corrective action” system to make everything look civilized, while upholding the ultimate priority of protecting the company from potential lawsuits.

The punitive argument in corporate America goes something like this:

1)    The individual is responsible for his or her own actions.

2)    If the worker makes a mistake, it’s the employee’s fault, no one else.

3)    In the spirit of “fairness”, the guilty party must bear responsibility, a principle that too often implies punitive consequences.

This thought-process makes sense in an individualistic society that embraces the myth of self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is deemed fair as long as (in principle) everyone is consistently held to the same standards and rules.

A good portion of corporate America is great at pretending it’s upholding the fairness ideal. Problem is that it is applied selectively. A great example is the 3-strike “rule”: it is generally only applied to operators on the production line; rarely if ever do you see a 3-strikes policy being used in the white-collar world.

The legal argument for having standards is understandable. It’s smart to document performance issues to avoid future lawsuits on wrongful termination, discrimination, etc. But to make this all legal and legit, 2 classes (really 3) of employees were created: hourly versus salaried versus executives.

Keep in mind that each class has its own set of standards and rules, with the top of the pecking order getting the cushiest terms and benefits, and in extreme instances some even get rewarded for failure (for example, the golden parachute severance package, and even more disgusting, the big banks that got bailed out by the government giving bonuses to their incompetent executives who ran the economy into the ground).

But getting back to our concrete example, why is it that only the hourly folks get only three chances to screw up? Someone please explain how this is fair?

The word “write-up” is now out of style of course. As mentioned in the previous post, to give it a softer, gentler spin, some HR departments have substituted the descriptor “write-up” with the euphemism “Corrective Action”. They fool only themselves.

What many managers in corporate America don’t seem to grasp, is that making folks “take responsibility” does not have to mean punishment. More effective options exist. In the story in my last post, I had my subordinate take responsibility for his mistake by inviting him to help solve the problem with us. And he was so happy to oblige, instantly becoming a productive member of our improvement team. Had I chosen to punish him instead, it surely would have created a resentful employee motivated to protect himself at all costs, rather than express his natural desire to do good in the world.

Tying it all together, one’s approach to managing people ultimately flows from a simple, fundamental assumption that hinges on the question, Are people basically good or bad?

I choose to believe the former. And in fairness, some of my compatriots share my belief. Just not enough of them. Yet.

Acknowledging that there’s a time and place for punitive discipline, I submit that punitive measures should be the exception, a last resort after all positive avenues have been exhausted. Corporate America would do well to reconsider the wisdom of an exclusively punitive approach to discipline, and consider instead a more humane, collaborative way of tapping into people’s natural desire to connect with quality.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

4 responses to “Management & Human Nature: Are People Basically “Good”?

  1. Corporations own the means of production. Capitalism necessarily operates in the thing-world — indeed thingifies humans, our ‘use-values’, and our ‘labor-time’ (reification in Marxist thought). As such, commodity production values don’t necessarily transpose to other organizations outside the capitalist domain (i.e. education). I’d take a capitalist who believed that “the corporate enterprise was a public servant for the community at large” with a grain of salt. Enjoyed reading.

  2. LOL, exactly the kind of response I expected to hear from you, Island Notes.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. 🙂

  3. I like your blog! It is well written and interesting. I’ll share it with my husband.
    Cheers! Bonnie

  4. Valentine Scace

    Great information 🙂

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