Dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature

Human Nature

In almost every decision made within a business there are embedded assumptions about human nature. We make assumptions about what customers want or how they will behave, and we make assumptions about human nature to try to get the best out of the people working there.

The danger comes when these assumptions are made subconsciously, or worse still, based on folklore or narrow experience rather than the truth about our species. The best companies deeply understand what makes humans tick and build their culture, products and services around this.

So what are the assumptions we make about the nature of the humans inside a business? These assumptions, conscious or not, shape the very fabric of a company: It’s structure, values, culture. Everything else that the business does follows this. But how much time is spent actually making conscious and wise decisions that really reflect what makes humans tick? By most businesses, not much.

Here are two scenarios:

First off, what happens if you assume that humans are fundamentally selfish? Assume that they care about themselves and those closest to them and everything else is deeply relegated. Above all else, they are motivated by what they can get out of the company for themselves. This is the assumption implicit in much of business-as-usual today.

These kinds of assumptions lead to hierarchies (because you need clear lines of ‘control’), ‘line management’ (because you can’t trust people to do their job of their own volition) and carrot-and-stick motivation tactics. If these assumptions are true, the only way you can really get people to do what’s best for the business is offer rewards for cooperation and punishment for behaviour you don’t want to see. The most visible example of this is offering bonuses or rewards for hitting performance goals. The reason it’s so popular is that it can generate short-term results (or motivate people performing highly procedural simple tasks – not the direction work is heading today). However, the inconvenient truth is that there is no social science research that I’m aware of to back up the usefulness of these assumptions, whereas conversely there is research to show that it can actually cause worse performance and lower motivation over the long term. It’s actually even been shown to be true in apes! In one experiment with children it was proved that kids who naturally enjoy drawing can actually become demotivated and will draw less if you introduce rewards for doing it.

To make it personal, how would you feel at work if you believed that your employer held these assumptions about you? Would you be able to deliver your best work in these conditions? Would it inspire your creativity and ability to innovate? Would it foster good relationships with the people you work with? I expect the answer to all of these is ‘no.’ Sure, you might work harder for a while if a bonus was dangled in front of you, but it wouldn’t sustain optimal performance and you’d probably leave as soon as you could find something just a little bit better.

In the second scenario, what happens if you assume instead that people certainly care about themselves and their families, but these are base needs and can be relatively easily satisfied by fair pay and good working conditions. Once these are met, there are much higher things that humans need and strive for which a business can tap into for the benefit of the individual as well as the company. This is the theory put forward at Abraham Maslow with his famous Hierarchy of Needs model, and something I wrote about before. If you follow Maslow, you satisfy base needs to take things like money and survival off the table, and create a culture that works up the hierarchy of needs, providing recognition and social belonging (not replacing family with work but recognising that great relationships help us to enjoy work and perform better.) Then further up still there is the opportunity to create ‘self-actualising’ experiences’ for employees. Setting up the conditions for them to be the best they can be and to master their craft.

Social science has also given us the ‘Theory Y‘ of motivation. This is the insight (which is bloody obvious to anyone who’s ever worked in a job they enjoy) that there can be ‘intrinsic motivation’ at work. Essentially – shock horror – that we can be motivated by the actual task itself, and to exercise self control outside of any rewards on offer.

If we believe this second set of assumptions, we can make radical changes to business-as-usual. We can throw out hierarchies and sometimes even management altogether (because we don’t need to control people) and we can focus on setting up the environment and culture to give people autonomy, great relationships and the opportunity to master their craft – the things that have been proven to actually motivate people.

Social science has offered us this second scenario and it is backed up with 50 years of research. It’s not a naieve and fluffy view – it’s created by neutral boffins – and it is finally starting to catch on. You can read some of the descriptions of how the ‘Most democratic workplaces in the world‘ operate and you can see these assumptions in action.

I think it’s time for all businesses to face up to the assumptions that they have been making about human nature and start a process of recognising the true potential of our species which can improve everyone’s life as well as generate success for the business.