Troubling Situations; Simplistic Solutions

machine human

The workplace is getting a lot of news coverage these days. Most of it, at least what I tend to read, is bad news for those that spend much of their time there. In the last week or so, I have read about the inhumane practices at Amazon, polls showing that 90 percent of workers across the globe are dissatisfied, making friends at work is waning, and, lastly, rather than rising to their level of incompetence (Peter principle), workers are rising, only to become miserable. At 80+, I do not experience any of this directly, so am forced to comment vicariously in my prose. But it is not only these conditions that tweaks my interest; it’s the reasons the writers invoke to explain what is happening.

The latest article in this series came today in the NYTimes Sunday Review. Arthur Brooks (not David) writes about the last item above: rising through the ranks until one finds misery.

EVERYONE has heard of the Peter Principle: Managers rise to the level of their incompetence. Today, however, a whole class of hyper-competent Americans will never find their level of incompetence. Instead, they will suffer a similar principle in which they rise to their level of misery.…Here’s how it works: Ambitious, hard-working, well-trained professionals are lifted by superiors to levels of increasing prestige and responsibility. This is fun and exciting — until it isn’t.

Another bad mark for the modern workplace in all kinds of institutions, not just business, but what caught my eye was his reasoning for this trend.(my emphasis)

Why don’t people stop rising when they are happy? Because we are built to think that more is better — more power, authority, money and responsibility.

And later:

Easier said than done. People are wired for progress, and regression looks and feels like failure. Furthermore, if one is a manager long enough, one risks falling behind in the skills in which one previously, happily functioned.

This last quote is his response to the likely question one might ask, “If people become miserable as the move up the ladder of “success, Why don’t they move back to the place where they wee happy?” In a similar article (see my post) about the the need to become more romantic to offset the onrushing incursion of computers into the workplace, David Brooks writes:

But the new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism. (my emphasis)

Both make a very critical error that distorts their sense of why the trends they observe are happening and propose the wrong kinds of solutions. They are coming from an uncritical acceptance of modernist views of how the human works. The core of this idea is that we humans are machine-like in nature with built-in motivations and reasoning skills. The consequences are that solutions to the negative outcomes they report on are based on the same model; fiddle with the machine to modify behavior. Arthur Brooks, to his credit, offers a different solution. Following the Bhagavad Gita and its emphasis on devotional service over other forms of work, he writes

In other words, even better than renouncing your exalted position is converting it into a source of personal liberation by devoting it to the good of others.…I believe that service reduces stress and raises satisfaction because it displaces the object of attention from oneself. When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me. When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention. Adopting a service mind-set guarantees some measure of success.

I fully agree, but it will take much more than a personal mind-set. It will take a culture-wide acceptance that the Bhagavad Gita has the more accurate view of what human beings are at the roots. Given the way Amazon and so many other places work, such a personal desire is eventually going to be worn down. It’s not just business, Arthur Brooks refers to academics that have risen too far for comfort. Universities have become more and more like the corporations that fund them and hire their students. A few years back, while I was still active at MIT, the Sloan Business School installed a point system to rate their faculty for promotions and other signs of success. My very senior colleague over there at Sloan, was told, after the system was put into operation, that he wasn’t getting enough points. The popular class on Environmental Management he and I had developed and which he taught, wasn’t drawing enough Sloan students to earn many points. He gave it up.

I strongly believe that as long as societal institutions function on the basis of the mechanical, fixed notion of human beings, all the deeply troubling social problems being observed will persist in spite of individual efforts such as both Brookses suggest. The mechanical, fixed model of human being has to be lifted out of the collective and individual unconscious and critically examined. Such critical thinking is always difficult as it invariably will run counter to the tide of taken-for-granted beliefs and norms. It is discouraging to me to see people of great discernment, like the Brookses and others who do care about the world to stop short of asking probing questions and keep their heads in the sand. Universities, supposed to be full of unfettered thinkers, are, perhaps, the most committed of all institutions to the reductionist, disciplinary framework that has anchored these early ideas about humans and the world in an almost impregnable vault. I have observed a myriad of efforts to embed practices based on caring humans and systems thinking that take hold momentarily, but are always (I cannot think of any exceptions) swamped by the power of acting-as-usual.

I am confident that small enterprises built on fundamentally different foundations exist in every major institution. They are hard to find, so the great media sources don’t spend much time looking for them. It is only from these experiments with different models and different ways of thinking about them that fundamental solutions will come. The taken-for-granted facts about the world, including the nature of human beings, are nothing more than sentences in the story that runs modern life; it is a fundamentally different story from the ones that ruled life in prior eras, but it remains only a story at heart.

These older stories were supplanted when powerful thinkers and actors were convinced that the old one failed to reflect the world that they observed and the goals they set for human life. They neglected to include the rest of the world that is now also suffering; another whole set of problems arising from the failings of the basic explanatory models we use. If the Brookses of the world would continue to follow the situations that they highlight from time to time with the same energy they put into a single column, they would begin to ask more probing questions about why they are happening. It is only after asking “Why?” many successive times that roots of persistent problems reveal themselves. The deeper the roots, the more iterations are needed. David and Arthur, how about convincing your editors to allow you to adopt a longer view.

ps. Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. I applaud his efforts to put a human face on what has been a very wonky place, but he is restricted by the very idea of “conservative,” which to hold the line on thinking to what is already established doctrine. Educational institutions, supposedly places to open up minds, are becoming little more that tools of our political economy that demands only that they fill up these very same minds with the fixed rules of economics and computer science, among similar subjects.

|