Business and the "Tragic" View of Human Nature

I recently finished Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. The chapter on Politics struck a chord with me, as Pinker put into words something that I have thought and felt, but could not adequately explain. He points out that political viewpoints tend to cluster, which is strange. Why should someone's economic beliefs be such an accurate predictor of their position on abortion? Why should someone's position on taxes make it easy to predict their position on the death penalty? Pinker claims that it boils down to assumptions we have about human nature. Some people believe that social institutions cause all our problems and that if we just get the institutions right, we can have a utopia. Others believe, like I do, that humans are inherently flawed and that we will never have a perfect society, so we therefore should support the rights of individuals to shape their own lives as they see fit. (This is why I hate political debate – we pretend it is about facts when really it is about assumptions) This latter idea is called the "tragic" view of human nature and was held, I believe, by people like Mises and Hayek.

It is important to understand the tragic view of human nature when discussing business issues because it leads us to think about tradeoffs, and the notion that not all things are possible. Pinker's book didn't address business and economics very much, but I have some ideas about what his view (which I mostly agree with) of human nature means for these fields. As I think about this over the next few weeks, I'll try to tie some of my posts back into this topic. For now, I want to give you my initial impression for the effects of this on the field of management. I think the field of management has a long way to go.Management is in much the same state as medicine. We know what causes most problems, although we don't know how to cure them all. We often misdiagnose problems because many of them have similar symptoms and because we sometimes don't have all the information we need. We can't always solve problems because each situation (or each person) is different and solutions sometimes have unintended consequences. We have made dramatic progress over the last few decades, but we are still far from where we want to be. Just as genetic breakthroughs offer the hope that one day medicines will be targeted for specific individuals, a better understanding of human nature (via neuroscience) will allow us to better target management tactics for specific situations, industries, and most importantly, individuals.

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Many of the management fads that come out every year don't work, but most of them do contain some truth, and some ideas that are worthy of discussion. Good managers are masters of situationalism (if that's a word). They can taylor their tone, attitude, strategies, tactics, etc. to the needs of the individual situation. I think in the future, management will move from being more of an art to being more of a science. In my opinion, management is still in its infancy.