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Why The World of Business Is Still Scared of Your Inner Life

May 11, 2017


Until business addresses its long-standing inability to acknowledge humans as psychological beings with complex, emotionally-driven inner lives, it will remain unable to harness the deeper capacities and commitments of its people. As a result, most organizations will continue to operate under a pervasive cloud-cover of anxiety that keeps solutions to many of our society’s most vexing issues out of reach.

While many believe that lack of human connection is the product of money-hungry executives or poor management training, the real reason goes much deeper. The actual culprit are the deep intellectual divisions that characterize the Enlightenment-era thinking that still underlies most business thinking.

A Lineage of Separate Domains

Back in the day, the primary benefit of Enlightenment-era ideals was that they sought to free Western thinking from the centuries-old belief in magic, superstition, and individual prejudice. Ideas by thinkers like Descartes, Newton, and Rousseau helped do this by introducing new systems of thought based on principles of logic and rationality.

As a result, Western thought — and the scientific thinking that underscored it — worked long and hard to create a clear intellectual divide between the physical world and anything associated with the subjective part of human experience. According to British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, what then ensued was a large-scale separation of the human experience, including its intellectual progress, into separate domains of human existence now known as the Sciences and the Arts.

As things worked out, anything related to material laws or mathematical processes — including the study of economics from which business thinking emerged — fell under the domain of science. Conversely, anything related to emotions or human beings’ subjective experience — such as creativity, philosophy, and psychology — were all assigned to the domain of the Arts.

Business was a Science; However Thinking About Business (or anything else, for that matter) Was an Art.

Another key premise of Enlightenment-era thinking was that every “thing” and experience that existed, belonged to one — and only one — category of human experience. Enlightenment thinkers were clear that these domains could never be mixed. (“Once you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way, From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.”)

Sorry, it’s really late.

So if something is considered a “science” everything within that thing or experience must also be an aspect of “science.”

This logic makes it much easier to understand how — for the past several hundreds years, if not more — business could treat human beings as little more than animated tools that needed to be fed and given rest in order to perform their assigned duties. This belief, now just a tad abhorrent, made total sense in its day as it served to maintain the separation of domains that had long defined Western thought.

And, Fast Forwarding To Today…

Today most organizational thinkers, including many university professors who write new theories and are charged with pushing the boundaries of how the world of business thinks about itself, remain unconsciously bound by the same rational separation of domains that has existed since the time of the Enlightenment.

The problem, however, is that today’s most pressing challenges — in both business and the world at large — require more nuanced, cross-disciplinary problem-solving strategies than that used at previous point in human history. For example, contemporary business challenges often call for greater use of capacities such as intuition, empathy, and collaborative sensemaking.

But, despite the growing intensity of such problems, until organizations can begin to employ not just new ideas, but a whole new paradigm of thinking, the solutions we so need will remaining confoundingly out of reach.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas D. Altaffer permalink
    May 11, 2017 4:57 pm

    Hi David, I love reading your thoughts! I agree and it also triggered a few thoughts in return. I will just put them in bullet form since each could be an article: 1) I think we have seen some of these leadership issues played out in the last election, by which I mean the tendency of employed people (or voters) to see the employer as “elitist” and even the attempt to understand how the employee feels as intrusive and weird. This is a structural problem that exists in any medium to large organization and which can’t easily be dealt with through empathy or “research” because those are seen as intrusive and manipulative.
    2) There certainly are organizations that try to cater to the employee’s “psychology”. They are much less regimented and segmented than the typical “male” organizations but they seem to suffer from their own dysfunction. 3) It seems to me that the “best” approach is one that takes into account the perspective of the various employees and is able to flexibly recognize the inherent strengths and weaknesses therein and lead from there. Not an easy thing to do, and you need a very large organization to even begin. And, of course this is super hard to do.
    4) this leads to the concept of Radical Honesty that Ray Dalio is using at Bridgewater Associates (which drives everyone mad because rather than discovering and catering to the employee’s perspective, he uses cutting edge technology to push everyone up to his).
    I am not sure what the best answer is, but I am getting quite intrigued with Dalio, partly because he used the technique to make a gajillion dollars (so it works for the business) but also because I think it works for the employees who’s perspective is expanded and supported.

  2. May 11, 2017 5:36 pm

    Thanks for this post, David. The Cartesian way of doing business has got to go. Will go, in one of two ways: in new types of organizations, with new value systems; or in those rare legacy organizations that can tack through the headwinds of change. Cartesian companies, in my experience, spend too much time separating and dividing, discerning this from that–Mind from Body. Job Titles from Roles. Humans from Machines. Art from Commerce. Ethics from Politics. Business from Development, etc. -Managing all the divides and linkages made necessary by the divides takes up too much time and creates lots of hidden costs. Often the focus is so much on managing the existing divides that there’s no time to do anything truly new. As an experiment. Or as art. Companies spend so much time holding their Cartesian shit together, they have no time to find new ways of putting ideas, people and machines together. That’s where most of our future wealth is going to come from. Not from preserving the remembered past in the form of current knowledge, systems and practices, but by uncovering pasts we’ve forgotten in order to put new practices into play, and expand the horizon of what’s possible beyond what we can currently see, or even imagine.

    • May 30, 2017 11:13 pm

      Hey there Mike,
      First, my deepest apologies for being soooo tardy in my response. (I cross-posted in several locales and totally neglected this one. Yikes!)

      So….Thanks for your thoughts on this piece. I love your comment that “Companies spend so much time holding their Cartesian shit together, they have no time to find new ways of putting ideas, people and machines together.”

      Indeed. My sense is that people in authority continually cave to the Cartesian patterns because–despite all their talk about people and empowerment–they really don’t have any better way to make sense of the world. Because they lack the mental tools and frameworks to make sense of things,their only strategy they have for temporarily getting out of confusion and ambiguity is to exert control.

      This is one of many reasons I find your work on storytelling so critical. If people are open to it, it gives them an opportunity to experience an intuitive, non-linear way of making sense of their world.

      Take Care, ~d

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