Of Organizations and People

 

Ute Wenkemann  NU’11 and Jim Stellar

 

Ute and I wrote a blog post in Feb-10 about what it was like to be a student from Germany studying abroad in the USA and doing co-op there.  Previously, I had written a blog post with another student who studied abroad in Paris and stayed to work an co-op to get real language fluency.  Ute already spoke English very well and got something else out of her USA co-op.

 

At this point, Ute is becoming a social psychologist by studying at the London School of Economics.  We chatted recently on Skype and the topic that fascinated us both was whether organizations, like companies or universities, could function like people.  That is, for the purposes of this blog, did they have “other lobe of the brain” functions as discussed in two recent books I have been recommending by Khaneman on “Thinking Fast and Slow” and by Eagelman on the “Incognito” part of the brain that thinks largely outside conscious experience.  Ute, what do you think.  Can organizations function like that?

 

Well… first, let’s think about what an organization is. Essentially, it is an institution full of people, isn’t it? And if we are looking at who makes decisions in organizations and how those decisions are made, then it seems like we are just looking at a collaboration of minds – or sometimes a single mind taking other minds into account. From that angle, the answer is clearly yes, organizations can have ‘other lobe functions’ as long as the people in the organization do.

 

Is this what was meant in the classic business book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins written just over 10 years ago that one way to make a successful company was to have both a clear (and correct) mission and a leader who can get the workers passionate about that mission?  Is this what Simon Sinak is talking about in his TED talk?  Can companies have passion?

 

I think they most definitely can but that it is almost impossible for a leader to consciously create it. The problem is that passion, in most people’s minds, is coupled with fun. And ‘fun’ and ‘work’ somehow just don’t seem to go together. Or do they?

           

A term that comes to mind is ‘work/life balance’. People are so concerned with keeping their ‘life’ separate from their ‘work’ – and it seems difficult to me to be passionate about something that is not part of your ‘life’? Companies are aware of this and work/life balance programs are in place in lots of them. As far as I know, opinions are very split on these. I remember an article I read for a class at Northeastern by Hoffman and Cowan (2008)… they constructed a cluster analysis of the websites of Fortune’s 2004 list of ‘100 Best Companies to Work for’ and concluded that work/life programs may actually be part of a corporate ideology, a way for the organization to get more control rather than a way to empower the employee to have a good work/life balance.

 

I don’t know if I agree with that but it does seem to me as though there is a very fine line between good and bad organizational culture. Somehow, I also keep thinking of tourism. When a place is just discovered and maybe a little underdeveloped, people love to vacation there. It’s their secret hiding place. The more people come, the more development is required – and suddenly, there is overcrowding and people start avoiding the spot. Maybe it’s the same with organizational culture. It’s best when it’s raw/authentic. When you don’t touch it. And as soon as you start building on it, you can only go so far not to destroy it.

 

I want to come back to the raw/authentic point as it is so similar to the substantial and authentic point that Northeastern put on its Experiential Programs as an important characteristic in a report I helped write for their strategic plan some years ago.  But before we go there, I have to say that some of the reason that it may be almost impossible for a leader to create passion in an organization is that he/she cannot describe it because there are no words.  The part of the brain that does this (Kahneman’s fast thinking or System 1 part) does not compute in words.  It may well be highly connected to nonverbal communicative signals (topic for another blog), but it is not the deliberative, speaking, conscious part of the brain.  That may make it easy to underestimate.  What do you think of this idea, that the passion creating part of leadership is created out of the “other lobe of the brain” as we call it in the blog?

 

I could see that being true. I mean, passion and intuition go together, don’t they? A good leader will have charisma; something about him that activates ‘the other love of the brain’ in his employees – something that makes them want to achieve greatness without being able to pinpoint the reasons.

 

However, I think that, as research on all this increases, organizations are more and more aware of ‘other lobe’ functions and largely train their leaders to watch out for possible heuristics and biases and go against their intuition. It’s tough because, on the one hand, ‘fast thinking’ can be so valuable (i.e. in creating passion) but when it comes to strategic decisions, most organizations probably wouldn’t be so happy to see their managers act on intuition. Again, it’s such a fine line. And it would probably be false to say that intuition is all you need to be a good leader. But I agree that it’s definitely part of it.

 

The Higher Education Industry is (maybe) a special case of organizations that could create passion.  Certainly, Jim Collins thought enough of it to generate a pamphlet on non-profits after his book (cited above) had been out for a few years.  School Spirit, as in pride in the winning sports team creates that on campus emotion that may be analogous to that company with a reputation for good work-life balance.  But there is something else.  As a professor JS has served at highly ranked institutions (U. Pennsylvania, Harvard U.) and more normally ranked private and public institutions (Northeastern U., Queens College CUNY) and noticed a difference in expectations for student accomplishment. He noticed a similar shift in one of those universities (Northeastern) as it went from ~165 in US News to a current ranking of 62.  Was that difference institutional passion?  As a student, UW noticed a similar shift in the work ethic she experienced in students from Germany compared to those in the US. Of course, as she remarks educational passion in students depends to a large extend on passion in instructors and professors. 

 

These sweeping generalizations are unsubstantiated by studies and are violated by individual exceptions in many cases.  But they get at something.  What you think you can do is often set by (as mentioned above) the incognito brain, the fast thinking brain that is unconscious.  What an organization can do may be set by the collective action of those processes in individuals as determined by the social interaction of the members.  Certainly this is the core message of the golden circle concept Sinak discusses in his book “Start with Why” in terms of Apple and other successful companies. 

 

Even more relevant to this blog, both of us have noticed a change in atmosphere after leaving Northeastern University where the cooperative education program has been around for slightly over 100 years.  Students there expected, even as freshman, to have the chance to apply the knowledge they were gaining in their major to some profession where it would be tapped.  Those who had worked for one of the 6-month full-time periods of employment that alternate with full-time studies had stories and a maturity that infected the classroom for all, even those who had never done it.  The University sank resources into the salaries of the coop coordinators.  Everyone took it as part of the plan, part of the baseline, like the fact that a Boston winter was expected to be cold in temperature. 

 

We think that tone or expectation or even passion is the collective product of the incognito brain or the fast thinking system.  That is what that part of the brain can produce if it is used by the organization and its leaders.  People work harder, more joyously, more in service of the mission.  Fun and work go together at last and more is accomplished… in higher education for the students, faculty, and everyone.