There’s been a bit of a hiatus on the blog while we (the family and I – I’ve not yet started to refer to myself in the plural like some minor royal) took time out for two weeks in the sun. The annual vacation is often a chance to catch up on some reading and this year was no different. I’m no fan of the airport blockbuster so I squeezed Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in with the suntan lotion and the kids’ swimmers. Being an examination of the remarkable decline of violence in our world (against all expectations and general perception), it’s not the kind of easygoing read most people want from their holiday tome. It is, however, an utterly absorbing and comprehensive look at violence in all it’s forms and at the psychology and neuroscience that lies behind it, covering everything from atavistic, ideological wars and genocide to the schoolyard bully and all kinds of repugnance in between.
Now, this is a blog about the world of work so you’d be forgiven for wondering what the hell any of that has to do with modern working life. If you’re a regular reader of my writing, you might also find the mention of neuroscience a bit jarring, given that my default position is one of healthy cynicism/scepticism towards the application of neuroscience by popular writers to issues such as management and leadership in 21st century corporations. Pinker hasn’t changed my mind as far as that is concerned but he has reinforced my developing understanding that there are certain innate psychological traits (the eponymous better angels) that are continually repressed by the societal norms that we’ve built up around working life.
Dan Pink expended an enormous amount of time and effort (and, it sometimes seems, spawned an entire battalion of Pinkolites into the bargain) padding out a thesis on personal motivations built essentially around three simple words:
Pinker covers familiar ground in a different context but with similar conclusions. If society and, by extension, the workplace focuses on the rights of the individual to autonomy, mastery and purpose (where these do not impinge on the rights of others) then we stand a much better chance of a sustained shift away from the harmful practices of the past.
There’s a famous quote that reads: “Under Capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism, it’s just the opposite.” Pinker shows that the we have a nasty habit of reducing other humans in our minds to a state less than human in a way that makes it more palatable for us to do them harm. The vernacular of business, containing as it does terms like “war for talent” “human capital” “assets” and “resources”, perfectly illustrates this point and might explain how we’ve found it easy to let the good people stuff fall by the wayside. When people in an organisation are really only apparent as digits on a spreadsheet it becomes psychologically easier to shuffle them around, discard or discount them altogether.
By constructing our corporations in such a way that personal autonomy, mastery and purpose are suppressed we create an environment in which people are almost forcibly torn from their prime motivators. It is no wonder then that efforts at engagement that don’t deal with these three motivational triggers are treated with suspicion if not outright disdain. It explains why work is for many seen as a necessary evil, to be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Neuroscience is a complex subject, best left in the hands of scientists and psychologists. We can, however, take the simple truths it exposes and apply them in our consideration of the people, individual humans, we work with. Some might query quite how one might draw parallels between the kinds of violence we see every day at every hour courtesy of our rolling news media and the world of work. Well, Pinker demonstrates that violence is not limited merely to bullets and bombs but to the psychological damage wrought by the process of de-humanisation that can eventually lead to physically expressed violence. Work is undoubtedly doing us harm. As recent studies show (like this one highlighted by Diabetes.co.uk and this one reported by the BBC), stress and mental health factors are now among the most important issues facing the business world.
With mental healthcare a lottery at best (as so eloquently and powerfully pointed out by award-winning blogger, Charlotte Walker here) and while people in businesses continue to treat other people at work as somehow less than human, as mere resources, as assets, as pawns on the CFO’s chessboard, then work will always seem a little like a place where our better angels fear to tread.