What is Humanistic Management? Achieving Success Through Human Dignity
Extreme and growing wealth inequality, ideological terrorism, climate change, widespread environmental damage. The seemingly endless crises faced by humankind demand a fundamental rethink of how we organize at the geopolitical level, the societal level, the economic level, and the organizational level.
Most large businesses and, more troubling, most business schools perpetuate a problematic economistic view of human nature.
The resulting acquisition-at-all-costs business model has pushed our society to the brink of catastrophe.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to create a 15-year guideline for social development. At the top of this list are:
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-Being
Not one of these primary goals, nor any of the UN SDGs, is addressed by the prevailing greed-based model of human nature ubiquitous in the business community.
Humanistic management rejects the view that humans are motivated solely by the drive to acquire wealth and power. Instead, it emphasizes human dignity and well-being by supporting our innate drives for social engagement and comprehension of a purpose beyond basic survival.
The Corporate View of Human Nature
The only motivation recognized by the prevailing model of human nature, sometimes called “homo economicus,” is to acquire wealth and power.
Despite research that tells us this is an inadequate explanation of human behavior, the economistic model nevertheless holds ubiquitous influence over the way businesses organize and operate.
The Pathological Corporation
The nature of a corporation is pathological in its pursuit of shareholder value. Corporations under the economistic model are entities with no other purpose than to acquire financial wealth.
A striking similarity can be found between the traits of a successful corporation and the definition of a psychopath:
- Selfish: Seeking shareholder value above all else.
- Uncaring/Unemotional: A business decision that maximizes profit is viewed as successful, even if it causes human or environmental suffering.
- Irresponsible and Narrowly Focused: Corporations routinely use legal loopholes to evade responsibility for environmental damage and personal injury.
- Overconfident: “Move fast and break things.”
The psychopathic nature of corporations causes them to behave in ways that go against the well-being and dignity of their stakeholders. This includes customers, owners, investors, and employees.
The Psychosis of Business Management
In the book Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership, Paul Lawrence relates motivating employees by an economic incentive to running a car on only one cylinder. What he means by this is that focusing entirely on the drive to acquire wealth and power ignores many of the essential parts of human nature.
Research overwhelmingly shows that happy workers are more productive. Employees are also more loyal to a company when they feel it supports their emotional fulfillment in the workplace. Strict adherence to economistic motivation flies in the face of this fundamental human need for emotional security.
The Businessperson vs. The Business
The psychotic nature of corporations should not be taken to mean that individuals within corporations all suffer from mental illness. Instead, the organization itself, and the ecosystem within which it operates, are flawed and drive individuals to support behavior out of sync with their human values.
The division between business practices and human values is starkly outlined in BlackRock CEO Larry Fink;’s recent letter to fellow CEOs on behalf of his investors. Fink argues that climate change poses a significant and immediate risk to sustainable investment and therefore businesses should fight climate change to protect their financial assets in the long-term.
His arguments are mostly pragmatic and business-minded. However, the underlying truth illuminated by this letter is that economic prosperity and longevity depend on more than the simple drive to acquire wealth.
Expanding Our View of Human Nature
Humanistic management offers an alternative to the psychopathic homo economicus model.
The humanistic worldview is based on the homo sapiens model rather than the homo economicus. Humanistic management emphasizes social engagement, understanding, and protection from physical and emotional harm as the drives which define us as humans.
In his book, Humanistic Management: Protecting Dignity and Promoting Well-Being, Michael Pirson outlines scientific research in anthropology and evolutionary psychology that supports the humanistic model. The book examines the evolutionary role of social and intellectual behaviors in human society.
Pirson makes the case that the greed-based model doesn’t offer a complete picture of human nature.
The humanistic worldview recognizes that humans are driven by the need to acquire resources and to seek protection from weather, disease, and violence, but it doesn’t stop there.
Humanistic understanding of human nature includes three other independent drives suggested by research in evolutionary biology.
These are the drive to defend, to bond, and to comprehend.
The Drive to Defend
The instinct to protect what we have acquired, whether food, shelter, or other resources, is essential to all animal behavior. There is no point in acquiring enough food for the winter if others are going to take it away before it can be eaten. Similarly, food is of little use to an individual who is under immediate threat from disease, violence, or exposure.
The human drive to defend extends beyond the basic physical need for security.
The drive to defend is satisfied for humans when we have enough food, shelter, protection from disease, and also mental and emotional security.
The Drive to Bond
Social behavior is such an integral part of our day-to-day activity that it seems almost trivial to point out bonding as a fundamental human drive.
The essential role of social bonding in our development as a species is supported by ample evidence.
For an example of how the drive to bond transcends our drive to acquire wealth, we can look to Facebook and other social media platforms.
We know that the companies behind these platforms make tremendous amounts of money off of our personal data. We also know that there is no possibility of our sharing in that wealth. Nevertheless, billions of us every day tune into Facebook and Instagram to share our photos and update the world on the trivia of our daily lives.
The popularity of social media can be attributed mainly to our innate need for social interaction, which humanists call the drive to bond.
The Drive to Comprehend
Curiosity, or the drive to comprehend, is another fundamental component of human nature.
As soon as the need for food and safety is satisfied, infants naturally and spontaneously explore their surroundings using their hands and feet. This curiosity develops as children grow. Young kids experiment extensively with language, images, and physical exploration.
There is no immediate benefit to this kind of play in terms of financial or food reward, yet exploratory behavior is universal to all human children.
The obvious conclusion is that humans have an innate and independent drive to explore and comprehend beyond satisfying our basic survival instinct.
A New Definition of Success
The assumption in today’s business world is that the drive to acquire is the sole motivator of human nature. This assumption leads to a definition of success based entirely on the amount of wealth and power a company or individual can amass.
Humanistic management rejects this assumption.
To achieve success in humanistic management, profit, competitiveness, and social engagement must all be accomplished. Additionally, a purpose beyond profit must be established and understood to satisfy the drive to comprehend.
The Dignity Threshold
Humanistic management acknowledges the insights and ancient wisdom of our cultural and religious traditions, together with a modern understanding of the evolutionary role of the four fundamental human drives
By adapting our social behavior to this model, we can balance human drives to reach the dignity threshold.
The dignity threshold is the point at which we feel alive and human.
We meet the threshold when we have enough to eat, adequate shelter and security, connection to friends and family, and when we develop an understanding of a higher purpose beyond basic survival.
The ultimate ideal of a humanistic organization is to elevate dignity and well-being of all stakeholders by achieving the dignity threshold in every one of the four human drives.
About the Author
Brian Webb has over 14 years of experience in management and consulting. His recent work focuses on helping new specialty coffee professionals understand their craft and their business. After five years as a department director for a coffee roasting company in Kona, and founding the first Specialty Coffee Association Premier Training Campus in Hawaii, Brian now lives in North Carolina where he works as a consultant and writer.