The Spirit of Differences

The Spirit of Differences

The Great Transition/6 - The Human Future is Creativity, not Cynical Homogenisation

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/02/2015

‘Not merely in the realm of commerce but in the world of ideas as well our age is organizing a regular clearance sale. Everything is to be had at such a bargain that it is questionable whether in the end there is anybody who will want to bid.’

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (English translation: Walter Lowrie)

The beauty of social life mainly depends on the game and the interweaving of differences. The earth is not only beautiful for the variety of butterflies and flowers. There is much beauty generated by the differences in the ways and forms of doing economy, enterprise or banking. Even greater is the beauty that comes from the differences between people, from the encounter of their different talents, from the dialogue between their motivations.

Many civil “works of art” that continue to beautify our common ground were born from motivations that were greater than economic incentives, from some “because” that was deeper than the monetary “why”. If their founders had obeyed the iron law of business plans, today we wouldn't have all the institutions for the disabled that have loved our special children, nor the thousands of cooperatives born from the desire for life and future of our fathers, mothers and grandparents. These works that flourished because of greater ideals resisted time and ideologies, and crossed through the centuries. They sprang from great motivations that have been able to generate great, enduring and fertile things. Economic and civil life, being human life, has an extreme need of all human resources, as well as the deepest of motivations. Economy reduced to pure economics is lost and is no longer capable of generating life or good economy.

One of the most radical trends of the humanism of immunity of the contemporary capitalism is the need to control, curb and normalize the deepest motivations of human beings, especially those that are inherent, where our gratitude and freedom have their roots. When, in fact, we activate our passions, ideals and our spirit, sometimes it happens that our ways of behaviour go beyond the control of organizations. Our actions become unpredictable because they are free, and therefore they put protocols and job descriptions in crisis. They especially cause crisis in management that – because of its tasks and nature - has to make organizational behaviour controllable and predictable. To be able to handle many different people and direct them all towards the simple goals of the company, it is necessary to implement a strong homogenization and standardization of behaviour, so that they become incapable of creativity (that all of them would like, by their words). Intrinsic motivations are, in fact, more powerful and therefore more destabilizing. We disengage from the cost-benefit calculation and become able to do things just for the inherent happiness of the action. We would not have scientific research, poetry, a lot of art or true spirituality without intrinsic motivations, as we would not have many businesses, communities and organizations that are born from the passions and ideals of the founders and live because and until someone continues to work not only for money. All true creativity has an essential need of intrinsic motivation. But - as we see every day, tragically - intrinsic motivation is also at the root of the worst human behaviours.

Here is the reason why the modern spirit, in particular the economic spirit,  chose to settle with only the instrumental or extrinsic motivations - for fear of the potentially destabilizing effects of the great human motivations. Therefore we have let democracy manage the public game of differences and identities, but we expelled it from businesses. And so our organizational culture seeks to transform human motivation into all the various incentives to reduce the many “because”-s into a single, simple “why”. We have thus reduced the wounds (vulnerability) inside our businesses, but we have also reduced the blessings (welfare).

Incentives have become a great tool for controlling and managing “reduced” people who are underpowered in their many motivations, in order to align them with the goals of the organizations (the incentivus was the wind musical instrument that gave the tune for the instruments of the orchestra, the trumpet that incited the troops to battle, the enchanting flute of the snake-charmer). So economics and managerial sciences have come to settle for the less powerful motivations of humans - even when they try manipulate them by promising new recruits a paradise that they cannot and do not want to give. This is also a price of modernity.

The operation of motivational levelling is dangerous everywhere, because the “man of a single dimension” does not work well anywhere and, most importantly, is not happy. The expulsion of the deepest, generative and free motivations is fatal in the organizations born and fed by ideals, charismas, passions - the so-called VDO-s (Value-Driven Organisations). These “different” organizations have a basic need of the presence of a share, however small, of workers, executives, founders with intrinsic motivation, equipped with a “genetic code” that is different from that assumed and implemented by the dominant management theory. These people are active in social enterprises and civil, religious communities, in many NGOs, spiritual and cultural movements, in the world of environmentalism, critical consumption, human rights; but often we find them also among the founders of family businesses, and in much of the “normal” economy of craftsmen, small businessmen, cooperatives, ethical and territorial financing.

We would not have these organizations and communities without the presence of these “yeast” type of people who are creative, generative and often destabilizing in terms of the established order because they are “driven from inside”, because they are the bearers of a “charisma” that pushes them to act in obedience to their daimon. These workers of an intrinsic motivation have two principal motivational marks. On the one side they are little motivated by the economic incentives of management theory and respond poorly or not at all to the external sound of the charmer flute because they love to hear other, internal melodies instead. At the same time, they are infinitely sensitive to the ideal size of the organization that they have founded or in which they work; not only for economic but rather for identity, idealistic and vocational reasons.

The management of people with intrinsic motivation is crucial when these organizations go through times of crisis and conflict, caused by, for example, a generational or leadership change, or the death and succession of the founder. These moments - that are delicate ones in every organization - are crucial to the VDO-s, because of the most typical and all too common error: not understanding the very petitions and protests coming from the most motivated members. If, in fact, those who manage or accompany a VDO as consultant do not recognize the value of these deeper motivations that are different from the incentives, not only do not reach the goal they hoped for, but further aggravate the crisis of these people and the organization.

When the ideal's quality gets into crisis, usually the firsts to protest are the ones who are more interested in the quality that is being lost. However, if the directors and managers interpret this type of protest simply as a cost, and therefore do not accept it and reject it, the first ones to quit are the best ones - as I tried to show in some studies carried out together with Alessandra Smerilli. Since these people are practically insensitive to incentives but very sensitive to the ideals-values dimension, they are willing to give much more than their contract states, granted that it is “worth it”, as long as the values they have invested in heavily are kept alive and recognized. There are people, even within firms, who attribute such a high value to the symbolic values and ethical principles that inspire their work, for which they are willing to do (almost) everything. But as soon as they realize that the given organization is becoming (or has become) something other, all the intrinsic reward that they drew from their work-activity is dramatically reduced, in some cases it is even annulled (or becomes negative). This is also an expression of the ancient intuition (which goes back at least to St. Francis of Assisi) that real gratuitousness does not come at a zero price (free), but at an infinite price.

Crisis management in VDO-s is a real art, and it requires of the leaders an ability to distinguish the different types of discomfort and protest, and to know how to appreciate and use the protest that rises above all from those who are the guardians and bearers of the values and ideals of the organization. The neo-managerial ideology, however, is getting more and more flattened onto a single motivational register. It does not have the categories to understand the different types of protest and so it is unable to recognize that behind a threat of abandonment a cry of love may be hidden.

People with intrinsic motivations usually also have a great resilience and a great fortitude in adversities. They manage to last long in a state of protest, preferring to stay albeit in protest (Albert Hirschman defines protesters who won't quit as loyal). People with strong intrinsic motivations quit and leave only when they lose the hope that the organization can recover the lost ideals, and sometimes their quitting itself becomes the last message to arouse extreme revision in the leaders. It is understandable therefore that a VDO is wise if it knows how to keep people loyal, giving citizenship rights to their protest, valuing it and not considering it as a cost or friction.

Biodiversity within organizations is going through a significant decline, and motivational levelling produces growing discomfort and malaise even in the heart of capitalism. And those who love and live in ideal-driven communities and organizations have to defend and preserve the now endangered intrinsic motivations. Maybe you can keep running for years in a multinational without giving space to ideal motivations, but the VDO-s die soon if we reduce all our passions to sad incentives.

In people, in all people, the reasons are many, ambivalent and intertwined with each other. Management culture and tools can facilitate the emergence and sustainability of the deepest and most idealistic motivations, or increase organizational cynicism where everyone is contented with incentives and stops asking too much from the organization and soon ends up not asking anything anymore from it.

We shall make the best of this great transition if we create more bio-diverse organizations that are less levelled in terms of motivations, if we are able to give space to the whole person. Then we shall have created some organizations that are inhabited by workers who are a little less controllable and manageable, but more creative, happier and more human.

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