Human Nature and Self-Management

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Fill in the blank: Most people are usually _____________________________.

Maybe you said “self-serving” or “lazy” or “impulsive.” Let’s call this view “low anthropology.”

Maybe you said “kind” or “hard-working” or “collaborative.” Let’s call this view “high anthropology.”

Either way, if you are a leader at work, your views on human nature will likely shape the organizational design and culture you create.

If you happen to hold a low anthropology, and you believe that most people need to be told what to do (and not do), with lots of carrots and sticks to reinforce ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior, you are probably pretty comfortable with strong hierarchy at work.

But if your notion of human nature is more positive— if you think most people will do their best work if given the chance — then you might thrive in a self-managed team.

Doug Kirkpatrick has defined self-management this way:

“Self-Management is the organizational philosophy represented by individuals freely and autonomously performing the traditional functions of management (planning, organizing, coordinating, staffing, directing, controlling) without mechanistic hierarchy or arbitrary, unilateral command authority over others.”

For self-management to work well, you need to have people who can balance the freedom this approach offers with the accountability it requires. Is this true of most people? If you hold the high anthropology view, you’ll tend to say yes.

Philosophers and theologians have been debating human nature since the days of Socrates and Aristotle, and that’s not going to stop anytime soon.

As someone who is skeptical of either/or propositions, I’m not convinced that most people are fundamentally one way or another. Instead I think human beings are incredibly malleable. When our basic needs are met and we find ourselves in a system that encourages and reinforces positive behavior, voila, most of us tend to be great teammates. When the system is based on a set of low-anthropology assumptions, many of us end up working below our full potential.

We’ll talk more about this in future posts, but for now, just consider the idea that our views of human nature shape the designs of our organizations, and to a great extent, our organizational designs shape our behavior.

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