The Number One Mental Illness in Business

Watch Your Blind Spot.Sometimes we don’t think right. Often we don’t think right, and we don’t even notice it. (This is well-described in a book called Blind Spot, by Banaji and Greenwald).

People in business have big blind spots, just as we do in other social milieu. Recently I’ve run across two items that, together, highlight one of the biggest blind spots of them all.  I don’t know what to call it, and I’d like your help in deciding that.

The two items popped up in neuroscience, and in business strategy.

Neuroscience

I’ve written before about How Neuroscience Over-reaches in Business. In response to that particular article, reader Naomi Stanford sent me a stunningly good academic critique of the “neuro-leadership” research. Sober, laser-like, and devastating, it lists a number of reasons why the neuro-leadership crowd is up to non-sense.

It’s called Not Quite a Revolution: Scrutinizing Organizational Neuroscience in Leadership Studies, by Dirk Lindebaum and Mike Zundel. It’s tough going unless you love philosophy of science, but worth it if you’re into this issue.

I want to highlight just one of the many points they make, because it jumped out at me so strongly. In their words:

… we argue that a predominant focus upon neuro-science to the study of leadership as an individual difference excludes further important units of analysis…a more appropriate ontological locus of leadership resides in the dyadic relationship between a leader and follower – as opposed to a leader-centric or follower-centric locus…Our appreciation of the dyadic nature of leadership, coupled with the need to be contextually sensitive, is incongruent with the predominant view of organizational neuroscientists who view leadership largely as residing in the leader.

In other words: leadership is a relationship. It’s not [just] a character trait, a skill, or a neuron path residing in an individual, any more than is love, or trust. It’s a 1+1 = 3 situation. You can’t get to the whole by just analyzing the parts.

In leadership, this suggests the key doesn’t lie in examining (or training, or selecting) one party, but in understanding multiple parties in relationship.

What’s the name of this blind spot in neuroscience? The authors suggest it’s reductionism – a desire to break things down to simpler parts.

I think it also smacks of the cult of the individual.

Strategy

Until the 1970s, business strategy was thought of in metaphors of war, and distinguished largely from tactics. But in the late 1960s, Bruce Henderson took a backwater part of strategy – competitive strategy – and turned it into a quantitative, matrix-hugging bounded idea set. Michael Porter put the finishing touches on it in Competitive Strategy in 1979.  The triumph of this view was so complete that the adjective has been redundant ever since. We now think all strategy is competitive strategy.

The essence of BCG and Porter’s worldview eerily presages the neuroscientists decades later. They saw the essence of strategy as lying within the single, solitary organism of the corporation (or the business unit, if you will).

Strategy, by this view, is all about the solitary struggle of each company to gain and sustain competitive advantage over the Hobbesian hordes who would do it in.  Nearly all business strategy today assumes the solitary nature of the business – the corporation is the atomic unit of business.

But strategy makes the same mistake the neuroscientists would make later. We are increasingly seeing that the successful businesses are not those who see themselves as valiantly struggling alone against the odds – they are instead those who collaborate, form trust-based relationships, and basically get along with the rest of business and society – rather than constantly struggling to ‘win’ against everyone else.

Again, 1+1 = 3. Unless you insist on looking only at 1, and then at 1 – in which case you’ll always end up with 2.

Here’s a small example: the Top Ten most trustworthy companies, over a three year period, outperformed the S&P by 24%.

What’s the name of this blind spot? Perhaps it’s reductionism again. Perhaps it’s the delight that economists like Milton Friedman take in pushing abstract models to the hilt. Perhaps it’s the alienated angst of Ayn Rand lovers. Perhaps it’s the thrill of the old Wild West rugged individualism, or maybe it’s just protectionism.

But whatever – I think the blind spot is the same in both cases.  It is a case of looking to individuals, instead of to relationships, for answers to what are most completely seen and understood as relationship problems.

The blind spot we’re stuck in – focusing on individuals, not relationships – carries multiple penalties. We should interview people for how they get along in groups – but instead we scrutinize their individual performances. College admissions look mainly at SAT scores and grades, not at social abilities. And I’m not even going to mention Congress.

In strategy, Michael Porter is an interesting case. A brilliant mind, he knows full well that the imperative of businesses these days is to get along. But in his recent writings, he is struggling to square the circle – to explain why a company must get along with others in order to gain maximum competitive success. The goal is inconsistent with the tactics for getting there. Companies who “do good” in order to “do well” end up doing neither.

We really need to stop seeing things this way in business, as elsewhere. We live in a relationship world. Thinking we are solitary Robinson Crusoes floating around on our solitary islands is sub-optimizing at best, and destructive at worst.