Human nature

I’m still processing many of the extraordinary findings discussed in Reinventing Organizations (Laloux 2014), but for now I want to address a single foundational topic that has come up repeatedly: assumptions about human nature. Are human beings fundamentally lazy, egocentric, and antagonistic, or are we fundamentally compassionate, self-motivated and trustworthy? As Laloux points out, “people can debate this topic endlessly.” There is plenty of evidence for both points of view — it’s easy to find examples of both bitter conflicts and inspiring selflessness, shattered trust and stalwart dependability, stubborn resistance to change and pursuit of lofty dreams, and everything in-between. So which is true?

All of it! Specifically: People meet the expectations of their environment. This has been known scientifically for decades and validated repeatedly. “This comes down to the fundamental spiritual truth that we reap what we sow… If you view people with mistrust and subject them to all sorts of controls, rules, and punishments, they will try to game the system, and you will feel your thinking is validated. Meet people with practices based on trust, and they will return your trust with responsible behavior. Again, you will feel your assumptions were validated.” (Laloux, chapter 2.3) Once you understand the essential flexibility of human nature, you can avoid the fate of getting stuck in one camp or the other, debating endlessly, unable to get out or lead others out.

The idea of self-management is a direct corollary of the fact that all humans are trustworthy, intelligent, and responsible, but only if we treat them that way. Conversely, the idea behind traditional management is that employees need to be directed and protected. No matter how much “empowerment” you try to inject into the system, employees operating in a power hierarchy will act as if they need to be directed and protected. The only known way to fully unleash the creative, intelligent, and trustworthy potential of humans is to practice some form of self-management.

There are many reasons why self-management is attractive, and Reinventing Organizations discusses all of these in depth. But to me, the chain of reasoning above is the most compelling. It underlies my belief that self-management is not a radical idea at all. It’s surprising at first — but seems obvious in retrospect.

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