100 years of nonsense

Now that ASIC has put neuroscience into the B (board) and C suite, it’s probably a good time to check how much of B&C suite neuroscience is pseudoscience. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea of examining the brains of leaders in business even if, much of the time, half seems to be missing in some organisations, public and private.

Jamie Gamble, a partner at the 135-year-old New York law firm Simpson Thacher, recently told The New York Times that executives should stop acting like sociopaths. This may be behind ASIC’s thinking. Cull the sociopaths, psychopaths and all other paths, and everything’s fixed.

The idea of a scientific solution to organisational issues goes back to 1911 when Fred Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, which not only gave birth to the idea of management as a science but worse, launched the management consulting industry. Fred used time and motion studies to claim he quadrupled the number of pig iron bars a worker could load in a day at Bethlehem Steel. The only problem was that, as Matthew Stewart demonstrates in his 2009 book, The Management Myth: Why the experts keep getting it wrong, Fred’s “much-touted ‘scientific selection of the workman’ — the conscientious investigations of history, character, and aptitudes of which he writes so passionately — never happened”.

Then there’s Elton Mayo, the Adelaide-born psychologist whose work laid the foundations for the human relations movement stemming from the very famous and often quoted Hawthorne Effect. Three years before Elton began his work at the Western Electric Company’s grim industrial Hawthorne Works, the company’s own staff were researching the idea that more lightbulbs would lead to greater productivity. Of course, the research was sponsored by electricity companies. Elton reviewed the research, did some more and modestly wrote to his wife: “We are ‘sitting in’ at a major revolution in industrial method.”

His breakthrough was based on a “phenomenal” lift in productivity from women working in the Relay Assembly Test room. “Their own self-determination and their social well-being ranked first and the work was incidental,” Mayo said. “Thus,” writes Stewart, “the T Room experience demonstrated the central tenets of a new, humanistic philosophy of management: that a happy worker is a good worker, that the road to happiness passes through the satisfaction of the worker’s psychological and social (as opposed to material) needs, and that the ‘informal’ or ‘human’ side of an organisation — its culture and values — is far more important than its formal hierarchy.” How many times have you heard that over the last few years?

Unfortunately, Elton had some of the same problems as Fred. Actually, the reason the women worked so hard was that they were paid up to three times more than comparable workers. And this was during the Great Depression.

Over the years, Elton’s and Fred’s work has morphed into silver bullets like BPR (business process re-engineering), MBWO (management by walking around), MBO (management by objectives), Matrix Management and PAW (pets at work). The new fixation with the brain has led to concepts like left brain/right brain, the belly is your brain and the merging of computers and brains. None of which is true, as neurosurgeon and scientist Rahul Jandial elegantly points out in his new book, Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon.

There are very few executives who don’t use the left brain/right brain model, which says everyone has one side of the brain that is dominant and determines personality, thoughts and behaviour. However, as Rahul writes: “(The left brain/right brain theory) sounded great, and the idea promptly became something that everybody ‘knows’, but it had one problem: it’s wrong and has since been demolished by decades of research.”

But just as the trading floors in most international banks use astrologers and numerologists, most B&C suiters will search for some simple answers for a series of complex problems.

As Stewart writes: “Many of the factors that produce managerial success are the properties of collectives, not individuals. Within an organisation, it is the general ethos, in the classical sense of that term ... that makes successful collaboration possible.”

This article by John Connolly appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Deal

Julie Connolly