Does Science Point to the Obvious?

“Much of what is new, is not right; much of what is right, is not new….” — Professor Henk Feitsma (translated from Dutch).

Some 25 years ago I was working my way through university by being a driver for several professors. I would drive them to a meeting or conference – study the entire day until I would drive them back home. They were well rested and I was well paid for the day including the time I was studying.

One of these professors (Ton de Leeuw) would often encourage me to read the classics of management (like Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor, Industrial and General Administration by Henri Fayol, and The Functions of the Executive by Chester Barnard, etc.). Professor De Leeuw would argue that if you read the original works and understand its context, you would find a lot of wisdom in it. And he would add quoting his PhD supervisor Professor Feitsma: “Much of what is new, is not right; much of what is right, is not new….”

I have found this to be true. This term I am teaching a class of 20-year olds in Organizational Behavior. Part of this is leading them through the classics (Elton Mayo, Douglas McGregor, Chris Argyris, etc.) understanding how our thinking on organizational behavior has been developing. Interestingly, the response of students to these original insights is often one of “duh,… of course [fill in the insight]”.

Some examples:

  • “Duh,… of course employees’ productivity increases when they identify with management” (Elton Mayo);
  • “Duh,… of course most people are motivated to work and like to have responsibility” (Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y); and
  • “Duh,… bureaucratic, pyramidal values (Theory X) lead to an organization that breeds Theory X type of people” (Chris Argyris’ Maturity – Immaturity theory).

Now, most of these organizational behavior students never worked in an organization […] If they had they would know that many of these “duh” lessons are not fully practiced in companies… (shall I tell them or just let them discover it when they get a job?).

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