Humanizing Work

Michael Metzger

With the development of business schools came the dehumanization of work. This weekend in New York City, a gathering of believers will wrestle with humanizing work. It’s a big challenge; one that Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana believes might fill “a gaping moral hole at the center of business education.”

Formal business education is a relatively recent development. It used to be assumed that individuals earn a “business” degree by negotiating their way through the workaday world. This was reinforced in medieval times as work became associated with the Old English word bisig, or busyness, as well as the Latin negotium, from neg- “not” + otium “at ease, leisure.” Work was viewed as the opposite of leisure. It’s whatever keeps us busy.

With the advent of medieval guilds, some kinds of work began to be called “professions.” Guilds are order-creating institutions. Work ordered by a moral universe was considered professional. Guilds gave rise to another institution, the modern university. It too promoted professions. But with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, “scientific” professions such as medicine and law grew in stature while “unscientific” ones (theology and literature) declined. When Harvard Overseers voted in 1825 to divide professions into separate academic departments, work began to be dehumanized.

The Scientific Revolution gave rise to the research university in the late 19th century. “Research emerged as a necessary qualification for a university career and became a criterion for promotion,” writes Rakesh Khurana, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at HBS. “Science finally displaced the classical subjects in the academic pecking order.”1 A wide array of disciplines clamored to be considered professional. Graduate schools conferred that honor. Veterinary medicine joined the professional club in 1879 (at Cornell). With the rise of corporations, businessmen also yearned for professional legitimacy. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School – the first university-based business school in the United States – appeared in 1881.

For almost 30 years after assuming the presidency of Harvard in 1869, Charles W. Eliot resisted repeated calls to establish a school of business. Khurana writes that Eliot felt “such a project would be an anathema to the university’s educational purpose of teaching students how to live worthy lives.” He didn’t consider business an academic discipline. By the turn of the century, however, Eliot found it hard to kick against the goads of graduates. More than half of all Harvard graduates were going into business. And they were giving big bucks. Harvard Business School opened in 1908.

HBS adopted Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific management,” a theory derived from Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. Darwin viewed humans as highly evolved animals. Taylor had earlier applied his “scientific” theory to workers at the Bethlehem Steel Company. Managing people didn’t work and Bethlehem fired Taylor in 1901. Unbowed, he penned The Principles of Scientific Management, selling HBS on the idea that people ought to be “managed” by “experts.” Taylor’s theory gave HBS credibility, providing managers with “legitimate authority,” writes Khurana. Business schools promised to train a professional class of managers in the mold of doctors and lawyers.

Unfortunately, training people to manage people doesn’t fit how human nature works. For ages it was assumed that people are thinking, creative, responsible individuals. We only manage assets, appetites, and animals. Managing people is animalistic, dehumanizing. This understanding of human nature, or anthropology, is sound. It’s also in scripture. The Bible says people should only manage assets, appetites, and animals. The framework of scientific management doesn’t fit holy scripture or human nature.

This framework does however explain why most HBS grads go into finance. In 1977, Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand was published. The Harvard professor argued that business is about increasing efficiency. The role of the manager is to act as an agent advancing the shareholder’s financial interests. “Chandler’s framework however lacks any understanding of human nature, or anthropology,” writes Khurana. It “represented a kind of Darwinian triumph.” The “entire model for modern business and managers is built on finance,” explaining why most HBS grads work in finance.

Any Darwinian triumph is dehumanizing. Reading Khurana might remind us of two other writers. Hugh Heclo wrote On Thinking Institutionally. His book reminds us to think institutionally, not just about individual life-change. Humanizing work requires aligning business schools with an accurate assessment of human nature – one found in scripture.

The second author is Howard Gardner. The Harvard Graduate School of Education professor suggests that modern business should not be considered a profession. “Professions develop over a long period of time and gradually establish a set of control mechanisms and sanctions for those who violate the code.” If professionals “do not act according to recognized standards, they can be expelled from their professional guild.”2 Gardner says modern business “lacks this model.” What do you think?

This weekend, the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church is addressing the issue of “Humanizing Work” (http://www.faithandwork.org). Yours truly is one of the speakers. If you’re free this weekend, come to New York and join the conversation. If you can’t make it, please pray. It’s a big hole we’re trying to fill.

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1 Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 78.
2 “The Ethical Mind: An Interview with Psychologist Howard Gardner,” Harvard Business Review, March 2007, p. 54.

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6 thoughts on “Humanizing Work”

  1. Scientific management’s first hurdle was the simple realisation that the workers can choose to withhold their labour. IMO the best management integrates to the extent each individual feels empowered to manage themselves with the support of others. People should be encouraged to manage their own business rather than just supply their labour.

  2. Mike, is a criterion of a functional institution that it provides a structure for human relationships to flourish?

  3. Great piece, Mike. It is true that there is no guild of business to get into (or to get kicked out of). The question is, should there be? Lots of financial planners have initials after their names that suggest membership in a guild, but in fact most of these trade associations exists to promote the interests of their members, not the public. Even my guild, the American Institute of Architects, is guilty of this thinking at times. Thanks for making me think!

  4. Another excellent essay, Mike. Thank you. You are spot on to say that a Darwinian paradigm led to the dehumanization of work, mainly because it dehumanizes people. We need to regain a scriptural perspective. I’ll be praying for the upcoming conference.

    The impact of the Darwinian perspective is felt daily in the workplace. The most recent study of the American workplace has been released by the Gallup organization. The news isn’t good. On average, only about 30 percent of all American workers say they feel engaged at work. More than half of the 150,000 workers polled said they basically sleepwalk through the day. And only 30 percent of those surveyed said they really like their jobs.

    I looked carefully at the survey questions. Half of the questions were aimed at the relational experiences of people at work. For example, one typical question was: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.”

    Given that so much of the survey focused on identifying relational experiences at work, I would say that a primary reason for such low levels of worker satisfaction is not about the function of management per se, but rather that the nature of management has become so impersonal. Workers simply don’t feel appreciated or valued. This fits with all the studies showing high rates of workplace bullying in America.

    A lot can be done from the ground up to rehumanize work. Improvement and change doesn’t have to depend exclusively on upper-level management or HBS grads. Workers can employ New Testament relational principles at work and make a huge difference. Every believer in the workplace can do that, starting today. It’s pretty simple: “Love your neighbor . . .”

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