How Much Science Should a Manager Know? - Seidman Business Review
April 19, 2023
No one has ever said it’s easy to manage people. Consider just the following two scenarios:
After ten years with the company, a line worker who has in the past expressed fierce loyalty to the firm and has been among its best workers, receives the highest yearly raise among her co-workers. She considers the raise, curses out her manager and storms out of the building. She does not come back.
A well-respected middle-aged physician, near the end of an orientation for new staff, makes an ambiguous reference to a sexual act and suggests this may be a “perk of the job” to watch out for.
Human behavior, it’s fair to say, can at times be a mystery to us all. Both scenarios are real and recent, and they, like the thousands more that occur every day in workplaces across the country, can and often do leave managers, administrators, and business owners wondering, well, “what were they thinking?” Maybe we’ll never know, but as Jeff Koeze, the owner of Koeze Co. in Grand Rapids, recently put it to me, “Should I – or one of my managers - be able to see some of this baffling behavior coming? Are there warning signs? Should we be able to understand it when it does occur? And if so, are there effective interventions to be made before things come to their worst, otherwise inexplicable outcomes?” Put another way, given the tremendous increase in knowledge about human behavior, even human nature, coming from the cognitive, social, and evolutionary sciences over the past thirty years, should we be educating managers to be more conversant with the scientific literature? Could it help, at least in terms of awareness if not always with intervention?
These are all good questions; ones Koeze and I have been talking about for years. We certainly wish we had more definitive answers. What we do know is that these questions are up against two long-standing presumptions among traditional managers and leaders. The first is that no matter the research or evidence to the contrary, many managers believe that people will and do consistently act more or less rationally, i.e., that they will a) have some good idea of what their own best self-interests are, and b) act accordingly. Their self-interest – garnering a paycheck, realizing their ambitions, engaging in meaningful work, etc. – will largely coincide with the interests of the business, and mutual benefits will ensue. Things can and do more or less work this way, or at least seem to, except when they don’t. And when they don’t, which is often enough, businesses, in the form of managers and human resource officers, bring to bear an impressive list of equally rational counter-measures: overt threats, last-chance agreements, incentives and action plans and so on, in attempts to deal with what’s gone wrong.
Secondly, while managers have embraced some recent findings from the sciences (think: implicit bias), for the most part they remain either blissfully ignorant of those findings, or resistant to the seeming complications the findings introduce into their roles. And to be fair, asking already busy managers to be up on, and incorporate, for example, how the amygdala can pull the hippocampus into fear-based behavior and away from considering facts dispassionately (leading to irrational or even violent behavior), or how game theory shows why procedural fairness matters so much to most employees, is a lot. If managers are resistant, perhaps we might consider what they’re already tasked with (Reh, 2020):
- Hiring and firing
- Training new and existing employees
- Coaching and developing employees
- Dealing with performance reviews and problems
- Supporting problem resolution and decision-making
- Conducting regular performance evaluations
- Translating larger business goals into daily work assignments and individual goals
- Monitoring performance and initiating action to strengthen results
- Monitoring and controlling expenses and budgets
- Tracking and reporting scorecard results to senior management
- Planning and goal-setting for future periods
- Explaining policies and procedures, philosophies and principles
- Representing their team’s work to stakeholders
Enough for any one human being. But notice that parts of that list involve knowing something about human psychology, the area managers often receive the least education in. An engineer who became the director of operations at his same organization once summed it up for me: “If I had known I’d spend this much time on personnel issues I’d either have taken more psych classes or remained an engineer.” This is not an uncommon sentiment. It is not that most managers don’t like the people who work for them or do not care about their well-being; it is more often that managers are at a genuine loss for what to do in the face of behavior they find incomprehensible. The default position then, understandably, becomes whatever the company policy says.
In decades of owning a business and teaching (Koeze), and teaching and consulting (DeWilde), we don’t run across that many people in supervisory positions who feel confident in their own judgment (or necessarily supported) when it comes to dealing with difficult personnel situations.
Koeze’s questions above point to something of a conundrum in management: the message to managers is often one that says let’s, in the name of efficiency, fall back on the simplest, traditional explanations for behavior, and then follow procedures for dealing with that behavior that may or may not reflect the current state of scientific understanding. The harder task is to educate ourselves about the current state, in the hope that there may well be even greater efficiencies in understanding perplexing behaviors, resulting in more compassionate outcomes. And so, does it help or hurt a manager’s understanding of her role when the causes of behavior, once upon a time either ignored, simplified or simply a mystery, become clearer yet more numerous? Here follows a list of just some of what we now know influences behaviors. Some phenomena we’ve known about for a long time but are only now fully appreciating their impact. Others are the sorts of recent discoveries we know make a significant difference in people’s lives and contribute to the necessity of employing a “multi-factorial approach” to understanding behavior:
Long-standing but more fully understood:
- Defense mechanisms
- Projection and Transference
- Theories-in-Use vs. Espoused Theories (Anderson, 1994)
- Birth Order
- Socio-economic status at birth
- Trauma, physical and emotional
Recent, significant, and still evolving:
- Impact of social media
- Stress and glucocorticoid levels
- Dopamine D4 receptor gene variant
- Socio-economic status at birth
- Sleep quality and quantity
- Parasitic infections
- Childhood abuse
- Cognitive load
- Whether you live in an individualist or collectivist culture
- Lead levels in your tap water when you were a kid (Sapolsky, 2017, Chapter 16)
The traditional tasks laid out for a manager, while daunting, pale in comparison to adding those of this latter list. And, of course, we do not expect managers to be licensed psychotherapists, neurobiologists or geneticists. But as the sciences have progressed, and social norms have changed (often spurred by science) to include the expectation that understanding and empathy will also be part of an effective manager’s job, anyone assuming the position of manager will do well to include awareness of, curiosity about, and humility towards these phenomena as part of their “toolbox.” Knowing that these are real phenomena, and something about the impact they have, moves us from simply dismissing people out of hand as “difficult” or “impossible” to people at the very least deserving of an initial sympathetic inquiry (barring violent infractions).
I mentioned above that “implicit bias” is widely accepted as a valid problem and training awareness of it is now implemented in many companies. And rightly so. And yet stress, for example, which science likely understands better than bias, is often not taken as seriously. For every one company that offers meditation or counseling, there are still many who think stress is either simply part of the job or the employee’s problem to deal with, even though it is widely accepted that stress – chronic stress, in any case – is implicated in more workplace problems than any other single factor. Returning to the first scenario (the woman who quit for reasons the company found puzzling, at best), the employee’s actions ultimately stemmed from two perceptions that caused her chronic stress. The first was feeling unappreciated over a period of years as she compared her work with the work of those around her. She felt and had some reason to feel that her raise was greatly diminished by the fact that she was surrounded by inferior workers who received raises not so different than hers (perceived lack of fairness is widely underestimated as a source of stress). Secondly, she endured a home life that had produced stress levels that made her behavior, again, much more explicable if one knows even a little about how chronic stress, cognitive load and the effects of abuse affect the brain (particularly the hippocampus) over time. I appreciate privacy issues, and how fraught any intervention can be, but managers are allowed to ask employees about their physical and mental states as those are observed to impact job performance. Under EEOC guidelines there are four instances when a manager may inquire about physical and/or mental health, including when, on the job, “there is objective evidence that you may be unable to do your job or that you may pose a safety risk because of your condition” (EEOC, 2016). Were there any signs in her case that suggested a manager might inquire? Here are some of those signs to be aware of:
- Frequent late arrivals
- Excess use of sick or personal time
- Patterns in the days of absence or ineffectual job performance – e .g. on Mondays or Fridays
- Decreased productivity
- Disorganization; untidy workspace
- Increased accidents or safety problems
- Problems in work relationships
- Increased errors and missed deadlines
- Decreased interest or involvement in work (“Promoting mental health in the workplace,” 2008)
And more. Does a manager need to assume, or diagnose, a root cause? No, of course not (and Koeze pointed out that in some cases the temperament of the manager may be the deciding factor in utilizing any new knowledge or awareness). What I am arguing, rather, is that being aware that there are many possible root causes may well make a supervisor more empathetic and ultimately more compassionate and effective. The manager’s responsibility is to “recognize situations in which an employee’s behavior is providing difficulties or concerns in the workplace, and to support the employee while they work to resolve the problems underlying the behavior or performance issues” (“Promoting mental health in the workplace,” 2008, p. 30). In hindsight, the woman in question did evidence a handful of these symptoms, which were never discussed with her. What could the manager have asked? “Are you experiencing stress?” is an allowable question, but easily deflected. It might have been better had she been asked, “On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most stressed, how stressed do you feel on any given day at work?” I have found that that question often gives rise to a conversation about causes of stress, how it is being coped with (or not) and what resources, if any, the organization might provide to help the employee. Again, the manager need not – and should not – ask about diagnosed mental health issues. But he or she can and should, I would argue, be able to pay enough attention to the signs, and know enough about the harmful causes of stress, to begin an informed conversation.
The employee may decline to answer or to seek assessment or treatment, of course, but then the manager may make decisions based solely on performance as to whether that employee should stay with the company. For more information on reasonable accommodation and the relation of all this to the American Disabilities Act related to employee’s rights, see https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/depression-ptsd-other-mental-health-conditions-workplace-your-legal-rights.
The second scenario (the inappropriate doctor) may seem completely inexcusable and perhaps is (again, policy does have to be protective, of course). However, in this particular case, as the behavior was, by all accounts, out of character for this physician (a telling detail in an instance that could have gotten the physician fired), some inquiry as to why that behavior should manifest itself now could be warranted. For example, were there physical causes? While relatively rare, tumors, hormonal imbalances, early onset dementia, dietary changes and various environmental stressors have been known to alter personalities. Managers need not be experts on these matters to consider them when confronted with and addressing inappropriate behavior if it is job-related. Knowing enough to think about alternate explanations for inexplicable behavior, and having the appropriate professional referrals at hand, may literally save lives (“Promoting mental health in the workplace,” 2008). Noting that the person “does not quite seem to be themselves lately” may elicit defensive behaviors, to be sure; but again, in my consulting experience, I have found that if I stay open-minded and curious about what the employee thinks is going on, they often actually want to tell me, or are curious themselves about causes. While these conversations may come to reveal complexities that the manager cannot and should not diagnose or attempt to treat, the initial care, attention, and willingness to help can make all the difference. Knowing what the relevant sciences are finding gives managers a wider range of considerations. In this case it turned out in the course of time that the physician was in fact “not himself” precisely because of a multitude of factors that no one felt comfortable exploring. In time he received help for what was a deteriorating condition. It didn’t excuse the behavior or exclude consequences, but it did help explain it. For more on the question of whether or not science, neurobiology in particular, will eventually come to explain everything about us, and therefore render free will and punishment moot, see chapter 16 in Sapolsky’s wonderful book BEHAVE. Short answer: Of course, we have to protect ourselves and others from harmful behavior, whatever the cause, but the investigation will likely open onto further promising treatments.
Findings from the sciences have changed, are changing and will change how we understand and then treat behaviors we currently interpret as irrational and counterproductive. What I’m suggesting here, based on experience, is that the awareness of, and curiosity about, the growing body of scientific knowledge regarding how and why humans behave as they do, has yet to make the sort of inroads into businesses and business schools that it might. The less guesswork there is about why someone who works for us is so “crazy/angry/irrational/_____,” and the more license we have to ask reasonable questions about changes in behavior, the less stressful the job of manager is ultimately going to be.
Anderson, L. (1994). Espoused theories and theories-in-use: Bridging the gap (Breaking through defensive routines with organization development consultants). Unpublished Master of Organizational Psychology thesis, University of Qld.
Promoting mental health in the workplace. (2008, April 8). University of Michigan, Human Resources. https://hr.umich.edu/sites/default/files/promoting-mh-in-the-workplace.pdf
Reh, F. John (2020, May 17). The role and responsibilities of a manager. The Balance. https://www.thebalancemoney.com/what-is-a-manager-2276096
Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. New York, New York: Penguin Press.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2016, December 12). Depressions, PTSD,
By Michael DeWilde, M.T.S., Professor, Department of Management
Koeze Business Ethics Initiative