Ideas of Man in Management

Camus\' \From Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus", I have particularly taken a control question to throw it against theoretical-abstract interpretations of the world and strategy recommondations derived from them: And if it were so, what does that turn men into? That resonated with the computer engineer in me, who knows that above a certain level of complexity, you can no longer understand software line by line, but instead have to test and evaluate its output.

Whenever I sit in management seminars or read management literature, I throw this question back at the content. With unfortunately quite unsatisfactory results at the moment: the idea of man behind current management ideology seems to be quite consistently – despite different topics and approaches – one that conceives man as exclusively good (and good-natured). One would still face obstacles to live up to this – lack of acceptance of emotions or poor reflection on humanity or bad organization – but if these obstacles were overcome, then the good and right would always win (and companies would then, of course, be even more successful).

It is a thoroughly naïve view of humanity that, confronted with Büchner's question of what it is in us that goes whoring, lies, steals and murders, can only turn away and cover its ears. This is interesting because the image of the classic manager is that of a rational decision-maker who cannot avoid a realistic image of man as a precondition for his rationality. The current management literature stands in fundamental opposition to this.

The Humiliating Study of History

We have actually come to terms quite well with the three great humiliations of mankind – that the earth is not the center of the universe (Copernicus), that man is descended from apes (Darwin) and that we are not masters of our own heads (Freud). Theoretically interesting, pointedly phrased (Freud again), but not really noticeable in everyday life.

Another humiliation, on the other hand, can be felt very well – if one does not consciously avoid it: the study of history. For a brief, naïve moment, one may believe that the problems facing one personally, society or the entire world are unique and particularly serious. Even a shallow historical look teaches: they are not. Economic history is fairly repetitive anyway, change is currently comparatively slow and low in consequences for those affected (new websites vs. industrialization). Society was once much more divided up to the point of civil war (Weimar Republic), we are quite far away from that today. And besides the threat of extinction by a nuclear war, one may also consider climate change more manageable, especially as low side-effect solutions are known (nuclear power plants).

The fact that one's own problems seem reasonably small and solvable in historical comparison is the much greater humiliation. As if we – despite all reenactment of former struggles – do not heroically lead the most difficult battle of all times, but rather a quite minor secondary one.

The Tragic of Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman is one of the few intellectuals I have encountered several times in my management education and corporate trainings. I even believe, without being able to say for sure, that he is the only one so far. Unfortunately – and this is the first tragedy – each time in a distorted way.

Of course, it's always about his stance on corporate social responsibility. The tragedy begins because his core argument is missed: Friedman writes, of course, that (1) the tenuous definition of "social responsibility" makes debates impossible. And he is probably also right that (2) many companies simply place economically motivated projects under this heading, i.e. they cheat. That (3) employed managers want to look like benefactors at the expense of their owners – the classic principal agent problem – is probably also true. But Friedman's main point is a different one. Capitalism and Freedom, the book in which he lays out his thoughts on this, is primarily about freedom. Friedman is above all an apologist of freedom, that interactions, cooperation and business are based on the free will of the individuals involved. He sees this freedom best realized in the economic system, which is why he defends its freedom with passion.

The main problem Friedman sees with a social responsibility of corporations that goes beyond economic goals is the danger that certain approaches to social responsibility politicize the sphere of freedom, the economy. Political systems make binding decisions that everyone must abide by, whether they agree or not. The political system is necessarily not based on the free will of individuals.

One can disagree with Friedman's argument. But one thing is indisputable: that everyday life and the economy have become politicized since Friedman's time. That is the second tragedy: If postmodernism means that the different subsystems of society spill over into one another, that is, there is a juridification outside the original legal system, an economization outside the economic sphere and also a politicization of the whole of life - and I believe there is little opposition to this today - then there is really only room for Friedman as a distorted image in the discourse. He then defends a freedom in the economy in distance from politics that has long since been lost.

Disruptive times, truly?

I don't know how many times I've heard this: We live in disruptive times. More disruptive than ever before. Typical evidence: the user growth at Facebook & TikTok. The disruptive superlative is nonsense, of course. Heuristic: Imagine presenting this thought to a person born in 1880 in Königsberg. Or to a person born in Frankfurt in 1820. Or one born in Paris in 1760. It won’t be convincing - Facebook(!) TikTok(!) user growth(!) are simply not a measure of weight in terms of disrupting ways of lives. Greetings from the literature of Klaus Kordon.

Until now, I thought the superlative was a sign of naivety, but all in all unproblematic. However, I am no longer sure about that: Because the thinking of living in special times has one disadvantage: It blocks the possibility of learning from the past and thus cuts oneself off from one of the most important sources of knowledge and innovation. With good reason, one of the most successful and innovative managers in truly disruptive times, Field Marshal Moltke (youth: Dane, cavalry charges with saber – older: Prussian, artillery engagements) in one of his greatest innovations, the Great General Staff, established as one of four departments one for war history. His later success proved him right: history is an important source for innovations.

Assessment Center

School and university examinations have something artificial: never again in professional life will the performance evaluation be so compressed to a very concrete examination situation. There is no equivalent for exams in professional life.

The closest thing to university examinations in professional life are assessment center before hiring or a promotion. However, if the university exams are about a specific subject whose performative knowledge is being tested, assessment center are about something different: can the applicant (1) recognize and (2) fulfil the expectations placed on him. Already the first task poses a challenge: Different corporations with different officially announced cultures also have different requirements for the habitus of their new recruits. Expectations can also shift above hierarchical levels. It is the job of the applicants to know these expectations. And then it is also necessary to fill this recognized expectation spontaneously and possibly in an artificially induced stress situation through demonstrated behaviour.

Thus, the assessment center has the artificial situation in common with the university examination, but unlike the latter, skills are tested that are decisive for professional success: Being able to recognize and fulfil expectations is an essential cornerstone of a corporate career. In the subject matter of the examination, the assessment center is therefore true-to-life.

Two observations

(i) Since we’re forced to work from home and I am therefore permanently sitting in front of a monitor, a mouse, and a keyboard, I have created many more PowerPoint slides myself. In recent years I have only rarely done this. Most of the time I only made handwritten sketches, shared them, and then commented on the finished slides in short meetings. Typical manager.

(ii) My private standard device used to be a common laptop, of course with a physical keyboard. Most of the idle time I spent typing something into this keyboard. Either a text or I did some programming or just played around with the console of one of my servers. Today my standard device is a tablet - without a physical keyboard. Most of my time now I spend reading texts. I reach most websites by using favorites or auto-complete after entering the first two or three characters.

Maybe the tool determines the craft more than one could wish for.

Endgame Fallacy

Being able to reduce complexity and thereby make facts discussable and, above all, problems solvable is one of the core skills in modernity. There are various tricks for this. One trick that I encounter from time to time is what I call endgame analysis: Sometimes developments are complex, but one can describe relatively well what kind of state there is at their end. So you describe this final state and then derive actions from it without having to discuss every intermediate stage.

But this reduction in complexity is usually accompanied by the loss of temporality. And that is often problematic. For in most cases it does play a role whether the end state is reached very soon or in the distant future - and above all whether its occurrence is brought about earlier or delayed.

An example: "In the long run we're all dead" (Keynes) is undoubtedly correct. But whether one dies sooner or later is not unimportant. "If I'm dead in the endgame anyway, I can actually (today) also stop eating" is therefore also an obviously stupid suggestion. However, relatively often I encounter endgame considerations, where exactly such a thing is derived.

So be on your guard against this fallacy. Unless you want to cheat - for that, endgame considerations are relatively well suited...