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Managers or Psycho Killers: The Myth of Business Schools

Managers or Psycho Killers

Before joining this 2-year management graduate program, I thought I would learn all the secret skills about how to manage people, teams, employees, customers… And now after several months I realise the (sad) truth. They are not really teaching us how to manage people, but instead, how to manage operations (processes, organisations…).

Expectations and Disillusionment

When I enrolled, I genuinely expected to learn more about the deep human nature. To learn more about Dan Ariely’s bionicles, Carol Dweck’s Mindset or even how to win friends.* But here I am spending 6 hours a day learning** international accounting principles or whatever they call it.

*Why not some dirty manipulation techniques as well.

**Well I’m not, but I’m supposed to.

Psycho-Killers are not Managers

To be fair, a basic understanding of economics, accounting, marketing, are fundamental assets for a company’s middle managers. It is just that I expected more psychology I guess.

Isn’t that what managers are supposed to do after all? To motivate teams, to add momentum, to foster a culture, to bring the best out of each member?

Yes it is. Or it should be.

And if a school’s vision of a manager is to “analyse numerical data, set monthly tasks and goals with monetary incentives, and find innovative humiliating punishments” — then they are missing the point. They are just training psycho-killers.*

*Don’t be offended, I am deliberately exaggerating to make a point.

From now I usually expect two kinds of reactions:

  • Indeed, maybe business schools need more “people-oriented” management training.
  • Stop complaining about business schools, you should have joined a psychology course if it’s what you really wanted.

But anyway, the next part will focus on *how *one can actually become better at managing (people). Because the fun fact — and possible explanation — is that… maybe we can simply not.

Can Management Be Taught?

Daniel Kahneman is a superstar psychologist (Nobel Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, probably one the most known worldwide). And guess what? He wrote that teaching psychology might be a total waste of time. And psychology is really close to managing people, it is about studying people’s behaviour and adjusting our own.

“When we teach our students about the behavior of people in the helping experiment, we expect them to learn something they had not known before; we wish to change how they think about people’s behavior in a particular situation.

So why can’t psychology be taught?

Helping Experiment

In 1975, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida of the University of Michigan told students about the famous (and slightly unethical) “helping experiment.”

In that study, multiple subjects were led into individual opaque booths in close proximity to each other and told to talk to the other subjects about their lives and problems via an intercom.

Except the point of the experiment wasn’t just to give participants a forum to discuss their feelings, it was actually to see how people would react if they thought someone amongst them was dying. At one point, an actor who was involved in the experiment and stationed in one of the booths, faked having a seizure while speaking over the intercom, cried out for help, then apparently collapsed. Do people from the other booths come to help?

Learning Human Behaviour

Now imagine this little exercise: YOU watch the videos of the experiment. And you have to GUESS for each subject if the person is going to help the seizure victim immediately or not.

And for more challenge, YOUR FRIEND has to guess as well, but I already told him/her about the results of the previous experiments and what is the percentage of people who usually help.

The studies (led in reality on two different test groups ; one knowing the percentage) demonstrated that your friend is NOT going to guess any better than you even knowing the percentage.

The bottom line? People are not adjusting their own perception after learning facts about the human behaviour. Teaching psychology or management would therefore be useless.

Training Better Managers — Our Last Hope

Nisbett and Borgida did find a way to get people learn from the “helping experiment” results and be better at guessing: Feed them convincing anecdotes.

They told a third group the procedure of the “helping experiment,” showed them the videos, then said that the two people in the videos had not come to the aid of the seizure victim. With this information, the participants accurately predicted the low proportion of people who aided the seizure victim.

So I guess our only hope for becoming better at managing people is to make more and more case studies…