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.