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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Human Resource Management: Aquarius or Aquinas?” (speech: IBAM)

National annual conference (Seattle)
Institute of Behavioral and Applied Management
October 27, 1995

INTRODUCTION

Has Shirley Maclaine become a human resource management guru?

Nonsense, you say.

Not so quick, I say.

Recent business literature seems to indicate that the Age of Aquarius is upon us in the Board room, and its impact is being felt in human resource management (HRM) ideas. New-age human-potential articles have appeared The Soul of Business by Tom Chappell, Age of Paradox by Charles Handy, The Reinvention of  Work by Matthew Fox and The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken all addressing recently in the Harvard Business Review, Newsweek, Fortune, International Management (British), Management Review, Forbes, HR Magazine and others. Books outlining New Age self-help management have been recently published, such as the topic of a new paradigm shift in human resource management where personal developmental “peaks” are the goal.

I am suggesting this may not be such a good thing since the “New Age” HRM principles may create more insecurity, potential conflict and perhaps hostility in the workplace than the old age HRM principles which treat humans according to their nature, that is, rationally and objectively, and therefore with more honesty and integrity and dignity. Indeed, I am suggesting that rather than Aquarius, Aquinas should be our guide. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the great 13th century Christian philosopher, was committed to a Biblical view of humanity, and used the Bible and his rigorous reasoning to structure his thinking. And while Aquinas did not address human resource management principles as such in his epochal philosophy (called “Thomism”), he did address the entire human condition. One does not have to accept Thomas’ theology to profit from his philosophy based, in part, on the commonalty of human nature and rationality. My plea is that we forsake Aquarius for the sake of our people and return to Aquinas for more just, humane, and, therefore, practical HRM principles.

I. THE AQUARIAN PARADIGM

While so-called, “new age” notions have been around since at least the 1960s, they received a rocket boost in 1980 when Marilyn Ferguson published her book, The Aquarian Conspiracy in which she set forth a new management paradigm, the management of “love and light.” The principles of this system are grounded in the conviction that the individual is autonomous in a decentralized society. That is, we are a boss unto ourselves, our own personal messiah. This new paradigm sees us as stewards of all our resources, inner and outer. It says that we are not victims, not pawns, not limited by conditions or conditioning. The “new age” paradigm believes that human nature is neither good nor bad, but open to continuous “transformation” and “empowerment.” Human nature only needs to “discover” itself through retraining and alteration of our thinking habits through indoctrination. There is no inherent human limitation, fallibility or innate weakness, to say nothing of original sin. Ferguson writes that this “paradigm shifting” changes the individual’s relationship to work. She states:

“Our ideas about work, money, and management grew out of an old stable social order irrelevant to present flux, and were based on a view of humankind and nature long since transcended in science.”

Now, in order to clear the way for this voyage of discovery the new age paradigm must attack or discredit the “dangerous myths” and mystics of the old age paradigm with its obsolete ideas and practices and world view. In short, the Aquarian new age paradigm attacks the notions given expression by pre-“Scientific” thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.

This new age management paradigm is such a hot topic that even the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued a policy statement warning of the dangers of this management shift from Aquinas to Aquarius as perhaps constituting an infringement on one’s personal values because of the organizationally enforced attitude shifting and the attempt to re-invent the individual person through coercion:

New age training programs employ motivational sermons, transcendental meditation, hypnosis, intense encounter sessions and other nontraditional techniques in an attempt to imbue employees with a new system of beliefs.

Even on the office floor there are warning signs being given as the Los Angeles Times states:
“there is an emerging backlash against employers who try to boost productivity by requiring workers to take part in so-called “human potential seminars,” motivational programs designed to change workers’ values, attitudes and self-esteem.”

While it is difficult, and perhaps a bit unfair, to put your arms around a movement as broad as the new age movement, I will attempt to summarize what I see as the main points of the Aquarius model, at least as they speak to human resource management. I offer the following six observations:

1. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes an egalitarian organizational structure, that is, a flat line organizational chart. The uniqueness of the individual’s distinct strengths and weaknesses is abandoned, as is the individual’s capacity for conceptual and reasoned critical thinking.

2. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes social responsibility and stewardship as defined by the workplace organization as being as important as profit and financial stewardship. Thus there is the sense that the workplace organization should be the focus of one’s loyalty, gratitude, and the integrating institution for one’s private world view.

3. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes one’s personal lifestyle and choices over one’s work schedule. The alleged female perspective of “communion” and openness is favored over the alleged male perspective of self-sufficiency and controlling. In an attempt to reject the alleged “cold rationalism” of the West, the so-called “maternal” or feminine ground of all being is emphasized with its supposedly nurturing, intuitive and subjective aspect of life. The doctrines of some Eastern religions, such as Taoism (and Buddhism), which emphasizes the yin (feminine) over the yang (masculine) are given institutional expression. Life-styles which are praised as “alternative” are preferred to the traditional lifestyle of Judeo/Christian Western civilization.

4. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes the workplace organization as a utopian community where there is an organizational unity of personal values and purpose. The workplace organization is seen as a professional family where the focus is not on product or capital or facilities, but rather on human consciousness. Perhaps the Aquarian workplace family is to even supplant the religiously-based nuclear family so highly praised in Western civilization. The new age paradigm argues that Western philosophy, such as Thomism, has trimmed our experience and tamed our metaphysics so that we remain content with the everyday illusion of human limitation and finitude. The Aquarian believes that Thomas Aquinas’ West has stripped us of our mystical lives, and we need now to re-connect with the dimension of the soul’s consciousness and leave behind the prison of rationality.

5. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes the workplace as a play place where one is transformed and self-actualized, and where one gets in touch with one’s authentic, creative self by “following one’s bliss.” It argues that we need to see ourselves as creating ourselves, as demi-gods capable of unlimited creativity, love, wisdom and energy. Arriving at a state of personal “balance” between work, play, family and service–all integrated by the workplace organization–is key to a fulfilled life.

6. The Aquarius paradigm emphasizes the workplace as a part of a global spiritual interconnected network bringing together workers, customers, and other human organizations with the environment into a harmonious community. All is interrelated, interdependent and interpenetrated into a cosmic, universal One. All are part of one continuous Reality that has no boundaries, no ultimate divisions. Ethical dualism, such as right and wrong, good and bad, helpful and harmful are dissolved because they are really of the One and, therefore, the same. The One does not have a personality; it is “beyond personality” and we are all partakers of potential divinity which we need to appropriate in ourselves. As Douglas Kries of Gonzaga has noted, if there is no ultimate personality there is no objective, external criteria for judging human actions, therefore, there is no judgment on personal lifestyle or beliefs, as long as they conform to workplace organizational orthodoxy.

II. AQUINAS CRITIQUES AQUARIUS

Some of the goals of the Aquarius paradigm are consistent with the much older and better tested Aquinas paradigm of management. Indeed, Aquinas’ general view of work has been stated thusly:

“As every other creature, human beings fit into the order of the universe. They not only fit into God’s plan, but also cooperate in bringing it to consummation. In the divine plan, human work has a social and communal dimension. Individuals depend upon one another and upon society. They perform services for others, and they expect a reciprocal return. The belief in divine providence undergirds this harmony since it maintains the balance between the community’s needs and the individual’s inclinations. God arranges and pre-orders a correspondence between an individual’s inclination for a particular job and the specific needs of the whole community . . . Person’s fulfill themselves in meeting the needs of the community.”

The new age devotees seem to have forgotten or perhaps never knew that Aquinas was one of the world’s great mystics and hymnologists.

The problem Aquinas would find with the Aquarius paradigm is its utter subjectivity, self-centeredness, and loss of personal individual identity. Since humans do have personality, what possible meaning can the One have for us if we can’t logically relate to it, or it to us? An individual personality can exist only where it defines itself in relation to other beings or things. Even self-consciousness demands some form of a relationship. Another great danger exists in the manipulation of the workers by the arrogant cultural gate-keepers of the workplace organization who prescribe what is politically and spiritually acceptable and correct, with a potential consequent of elimination of personal freedom. These organizational visionaries can do that manipulating and social planning because there are no commonly accepted rules of behavior, or critique, or principles of understanding, because everyone is to follow his/her own self-actualizing path which leads to the same Nirvana, as if this path is known for certain ahead of time by each human being. This ambiguity and moral anarchy causes stress and anxiety as one gropes for one’s own authentic personal “transformation” or “empowerment.” Personal experience and not rational inquiry becomes the center and source of knowledge. Evil or bad actions simply become the denial of self-actualization of one’s true potential, thus denying the common ground of justice. For every person there is a different reality and a different set of truths and a different and arbitrary notion of good. The dogma of the Aquarian self-salvation and union with a universal or cosmic Spirit or Mind in some collective existence of humankind robs the individual of heterogeneity and imprisons the individual within human nature without the possibility of transcending human evil into goodness and virtue through the grace of Thomas’ God. The workplace organizational roles are undefined or fluid. Indeed, the age of Aquarius in the Boardroom has brought us the distrust and unrealistic expectations, the confusion and false humility, the misleading assumptions about human nature, and the disingenuous prattling and inconsistencies that the Aquarians loath. While spiritual enrichment is given emphasis, the need for physical enrichment is overlooked and over denigrated, thus creating an unnatural tension with natural human aspirations.

Contrast the Aquarian approach to organizational relationships with the Aquinian approach grounded in the ancient wisdom of the Jews and the Greeks. This paper on the Aquinas principles of Human Resource Management will refer to a Biblical example of human resources taken from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, and from that I will suggest a Thomistic plan for implementing improvements in managing human resources in an organization. I am not suggesting that Thomas’ full understanding of a just relationship between leader and follower can be delineated with this one parable, only that this one Biblical parable can give us insight into a just Human Resource Management paradigm.

A cautionary word: Thomistic Human Resource Management must be undertaken with great care and discernment lest the absolute and utter uniqueness of the human being in the organizational equation be diminished to simply another “resource” used to reach the organization’s goals. The human being is the purpose of, the reason for, the embodiment of, organizational life. Indeed, a practitioner of HRM principles, if he/she is to be truly Thomistic, must be extremely vigilant not to see the individual as a means to an end for the organization, but rather as part of the end for an organization’s existence.

II. THE AQUINAS PARADIGM

Thomas Aquinas approached all of life as an orderly, unified, interconnected system, grounded and sustained by reliance on the Bible and sound human reason. In Thomas’ scheme of creation we humans have our place, and nothing can fundamentally alter this ideal order and hierarchy because it is based on God and universal human nature. Forms of human organization may change but our nature is fixed, abiding, essential, and moral because it is grounded in a perfect and eternal God. One could describe Thomas’ world-view in the following way: “There is a place for everything, and everything is in its proper place.”

Thomas’ view of the world is essentially realistic and concrete. That is, he does not presuppose a notion from which reality is to be deduced, but rather he starts from what exists and inquires what its being is, how its exists, what is the condition of its existence, and how do we function within existent reality.

Using Thomistic principles I have advanced the following suggestions as part of a management paradigm:

1) The first Thomistic management principle is for the leader to realize an obligation to the followers to delegate crucial and important responsibilities of the organization. This delegation, if it’s to be genuine, must put the leader at some risk and must involve a hands-off attitude on the part of the leader. The delegation must convey a sense of personal ownership to the delegate; and furthermore, emphasize the fact that personal and private ownership is a good thing.

One of the vulnerabilities of leadership is the direct and immediate liability for delegated mistakes. There may be no organization buffer or “safe harbor” for the leader negatively impacted by sloppy performance on the part of the delegate. There is always a real and genuine trade-off when a leader delegates responsibilities for which failure may have negative consequences for the organization. Max DePree’s axiom: “Delegation is a matter of dying” has a reality to it for every leader. Indeed, ironically in delegating the leader becomes vulnerable to the follower.

A leader continually needs to keep in mind the duty to use the leader’s position of leadership to help build self-awareness and stewardship in those entrusted to him or her. The Thomistic leader has an obligation to use his property (e.g., his position) as a means to develop others. Delegation is the best process for developing people since it causes them to grow in skills, responsibility, and confidence.

Thankfully, this matter of delegation is not all one-sided. Our parable of the talents teaches us first, that a leader has the right to expect the follower to desire to be a good steward and therefore to responsibly seek delegated responsibilities. Second, the leader has the right to expect candor and clarity on the part of the follower, and that the follower will make the attempt to understand the task being delegated. Third, the Thomistic leader has the right to expect the delegate to attempt to excel in meeting the leader’s expectations. Fourth, the leader has the right to expect the follower to give an account of the task delegated.

2) The second Thomistic management principle is that the leader must know and be discerning towards his/her staff so that the delegation will be proper and appropriate, and not burdensome to the delegate, to the organization, or to the leader. Proper delegation depends on the quality of the relationship between the leader and the follower. In other words, the Thomistic leader must know the followers’ individual strengths and weaknesses. This discernment must not be sentimental or foolish, but must be honest and personalized and continuous. It can be such only if the leader takes a personal interest in the followers.

This second Thomistic leadership principle calls the leader to build the quality of discernment in him or her. The Greek word translated “to discern” (diakriono) can mean “to discriminate,” “to separate” or “to judge.” Without a discerning mind a leader cannot help individuals maximize their gifts, talents, and humanness.

The leader should understand that the unequal distribution of property (i.e., responsibilities) according to the dictates of a discerning and just stewardship is a good thing, and not a reflection of evil in either the leader or the follower.

The Thomistic leader must structure a system of accountability whereby the follower has an opportunity and the time to adequately demonstrate the stewardship results of his/her delegated entrustment. As Andrew Tadie of Seattle University states, “There is to be a reckoning and a rewarding.”

The Thomistic leader must be prepared to reward faithful followers quickly with genuine praise and commendation, along with substantial rewards of increased leadership responsibilities or other remuneration meaningful to the followers. Furthermore, the leader must be prepared to share, indeed, has an obligation to share leadership with faithful followers–to enter into a partnership or fellowship of leaders. The results will be, first, to edify the organization’s human resources and second, to fulfill the organization’s mission.

The Thomistic leader must be prepared to personally discipline the faithless follower with termination of employment or at least demotion. The leader must be honest and truthful with the insubordinate follower with the hope that the unworthy will be less so in the future. It is important to the leader that the follower learns to deal with personal work habits and the reality of organizational life.

6) The Thomistic leader must encourage and create an organizational atmosphere whereby the followers will take risks for personal growth, even at the risk of personal failure. The Thomistic leader wants increase more than security! People get only so many opportunities to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them. If they use those early opportunities wisely and faithfully, the opportunities for growth and gain will increase and the habit of good stewardship will strengthen as well; all this leading, in turn, to more opportunities.

So what we have is a spiraling pattern of success based on Thomistic human resource management principles. But the reverse is just as true, and as painful as the opposite is joyous. So, once again we are encouraged to make use of all the opportunities given to us. In the parlance of today, we must “use it or lose it,” or, “if you snooze, you lose,” even if it’s only one talent! Thomistic HRM is like a muscle, we must exercise it or it will atrophy and wither.

CONCLUSION

The Thomistic key to any plan to strengthen the development of human resources in an organization is dependent on the leader’s character. Unless the leader displays the kind of leadership that draws out “followership” in the staff then there will be no follower development. Thomistic leadership is not essentially a matter of personality, or traits, or behavior, or style, or appearance, or position, but rather a matter of character. Character is a matter of what we are within ourselves, of the inner person. If character is that which we are disposed to exhibit, or inclined to do, or have a tendency to be, then the first act of any person who ardently desires to be a leader, or a developer of the human resources which have been placed in his or her care, is to be, as Lewis Smedes of Fuller Seminary suggests consistently, dependably, predictably, moral and virtuous in character.

It seems to me that this parable of the talents is powerfully apropos to a Thomistic paradigm of leadership in an organization. The leader’s constant duty is to love the people who have joined the organization, the faithful company of individuals. This attitude of colleague love may be difficult to express at times. But it is fundamental to proven and timeless leadership principles which the founder of Christianity and the great philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas have enunciated and demonstrated for all subsequent leaders. A good Thomistic Human Resource Manager is a good lover of people.

The management paradigm which is destined to push through all the new, modish buzz concepts is one which emphasizes the timeless Thomistic fundamentals of human understanding which will enable organizations to endure and thrive in market or competitive conditions. James Collins in his book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: Harper Business Books, 1994) has written that the one lesson he has found in organizational success is the following:

“Clock build” your company so that it preserves a passionately held core ideology and simultaneously stimulates progress in everything but that ideology. A truly visionary company embraces both ends of a continuum: Continuity and change, conservatism and progressiveness, stability and revolution, predictability and chaos, heritage and renewal, fundamentals and craziness.”

Modernity, itself, provides us with change, innovation, disruption, and progression. Thomas Aquinas gives us a core, which provides the formula for continuity, conservatism, predictability, and stability, that will augur well for a fair, just, and equitable management of the folks in our organization.

(Footnotes have been deleted from this blog but are available upon request.)

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