Some time in this century, a few of the world’s leading MBA programs realized students were being taught plenty about business but nothing about human behavior. They knew a growing body of evidence was showing clear linkages between management practices based in the behavioral sciences and organizational success. Furthermore, they determined that developing a basic understanding of human behavior was one of the few remaining sources of sustainable competitive advantage in modern organizations. So they did something about it. They asked outsiders to create new courses in human behavior, made them mandatory for all MBA students, and a trend began.
One official who knew a good idea when he saw it asked me to design and teach a brand-new course at his school. The President of the University of the West Indies Graduate School of Business knew I had taught English to Vietnamese fighter pilots in Saigon, Sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, and Market Research at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. He gave me complete freedom to determine what the course would cover and told me to design it however I wanted. His only stipulations were that the first class would include two dozen adult students of his choosing. All of them were full-time employees of national and regional businesses, so this would be a Saturday morning class. I would teach for three hours each week for 12 weeks and give a final exam on the 13th week. What follows is the course outline he approved and the students were given at registration.
This is a brand new course in human behavior and you are the guinea pigs
For better or worse, you are the first students to take this new class that will take multiple perspectives, including those from the fields of Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology, as well as History, Archaeology, Geography, Biology, and others. The goals are for students to develop knowledge, understanding and skills relating to human behavior in the workplace, the well-being of employees, and organizational effectiveness.
It is hard to imagine a course that covers more territory than this
The big challenge for the instructor is how to navigate the vast landscape of human behavior in just 36 hours – what to include, what to omit, and what to emphasize. Today, what we think of as human behavior is centered in the fields of Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology. Because these “Big Three” behavioral science disciplines (the SPA sciences) didn’t emerge until the 18th and 19th centuries, with such luminaries as Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, Comte, Marx, and Weber, beginning there would be starting the story in the middle. We could go back farther, back to ancient Greece of 300 and 400 BC, where the social sciences had their roots in the thinkers and philosophers of the time. But if we begin with Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, we bypass the thousands of years of written history that preceded that. And if we limit ourselves to written histories, we ignore the thousands and thousands of years of human history that came before that.
So this course will go back to the dawn of civilization and the time when the human race wandered the earth hunting and gathering in small bands
We will pick up the pace when these small bands started growing into ever-larger and more complex tribes, chiefdoms, and states. This means before we get into the behavioral sciences, we need to know a little bit about History, Archaeology, Geography, Biology, the weather and even dungheaps – all things that are woven into what makes us human.
The emergence of cities
As villages and towns became physical cities, social cities developed right alongside them. Because people are prone to take things like complexity, diversity, specialization, stratification, the development of ideologies, economies, technologies, and hierarchies for granted, we’ll back up and take a closer look at all these things that are the foundations of society at large.
After paving the long and winding road to enlightenment, we will move to understanding more about how people think and act individually and in groups. Only at this point we will address how the Age of Enlightenment led to the development of the SPA sciences as we know them today.
The behavioral sciences
Here we will talk about three things most people get confused: beliefs, assumptions, and facts. We’ll take a closer look at contradictory and complimentary theories and schools of thought about all things human. We’ll get familiar with what experts have to say about nature vs. nurture and we’ll develop a deeper understanding of people’s motivations, wants, and needs. We will spend a significant amount of time exploring how the mind works; conscious and unconscious thought; deliberation and reasoning; bias, ethnocentrism, and stereotyping; correlation and causation; the scientific method; perceptual blinders; the value of the external perspective; and many more. And finally, we will figure out how to tie all this together in ways that we can apply to how we think and act in the workplace and in our social environments. The goal is for students in this guinea pig class to learn things most MBAs don’t, so they can get in front of the wave and not be wiped out by it.
There is no textbook
One of the challenges for students is that there is no single textbook with all the “answers” listed in a neat and orderly manner. This is a discomfort for many. You will not be asked to learn only one perspective, but to take in many points of view and then synthesize them. I expect each of you to actively participate in a slew of in-class activities. These include your successfully completing assignments, projects, presentations, in-class workshops, and quizzes. You will be asked to solve problems with the same methods you use to solve a jigsaw puzzle.
Each week I will post a number of readings on the e-learning site
These will often be articles from the news, including world sources such the Guardian, Atlantic, Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others. They will sometimes be classics, such as Horace Miner’s Body Ritual Among the Nacirema (students who only skimmed the article while multi-tasking never made the connection; students who read it got the point. Guess which group had the higher test scores and GPAs?). Students are required to arrive prepared to discuss what they have read, identify the issues, and pose some good questions.
All of you are grownups with full time jobs, families, friends, and real life responsibilities
The responsibility for learning is squarely on your shoulders, exactly where it belongs. It is up to each of you to decide how you want to sail these uncharted waters. Some of you will move toward the light, and others will run from it.
We will eschew obfuscation
I will do my best to explain complicated subject matter simply. If you don’t get it, I’ll try to put it another way and offer another example. What’s important for you to learn is the ideas and the thinking behind them, not just the jargon. You will become familiar with basic behavioral concepts and where they came from. You will learn these new things by connecting them with familiar things you already know from your business and personal lives.
Many university courses go directly from Point A to Point Z, but not this one
I have prepared more than a thousand slides that cover hundreds of different topics, all of which are related. Each day of class I will print on the whiteboard the titles of half a dozen or more subjects for us to talk about. You chose the order we take them in. Here are some of the titles you will see: Mind the Gap, Pants on Fire, Deliberation and Reasoning, One Size Fits No One Well, Reward and Punishment, Three Little Pigs, The Difference Between a Groove and a Rut, and Would You Rather Eat a Bowl of Sand or a Bowl of Gravel?
We will toggle back and forth between subjects and perspectives with the goal of assembling our own working models of how to look at things more closely and see them more clearly, how to know more about ourselves and our environments, and how to make better decisions to achieve this course’s goal of giving you an advantage.
Much of what students will be exposed to in this course is unfamiliar and some of it is unsettling
As humans, many of us feel threatened when we are confronted with things that don’t fit our personal world views. Many will fail to recognize the limitations of our experiences (yes, me, too). The general idea of this course is to look at things we take for granted in new ways and take the rough with the smooth.
Along the way, you will find some of the things you believe to be true aren’t true at all
For years you believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. But at some point you examined your beliefs and drew new conclusions. You are adult members of the workforce, not children. This course tests the ability of the student to be open-minded, a rare and valuable attribute in business.
You will be introduced to the scientific method
These are the principles and procedures we use in the systematic pursuit of knowledge. Elements of the scientific method involve developing written objectives, formalizing plans for collecting data through observation and experiment, and determining how we will analyze and interpret the findings. You will be shown foolproof ways to separate fact from fiction and you will learn how to see through the manipulations, distortions and fabrications that are around you everywhere.
You will have an edge over the competition
Business leaders who understand why people think and act the ways they do have greater success with their customers, colleagues, and employees. Learning more than most about human behavior helps people in all walks of life and in all endeavors, both at work and at home. This course is designed to provide students with the knowledge and understanding about human behavior they need to develop and sustain real competitive advantage in the marketplace.
One of my goals is for students to develop a working knowledge of the basics of critical thinking and sound decision-making. Others are for them to learn to embrace diversity of thought, keep an open mind, and vigorously challenge their own assumptions. Students who learn to ask more questions and not rush to judgment before making workplace decisions will find they are miles ahead of their colleagues. Students who are able to synthesize what they have learned in class will find applying their new knowledge helps them collect better information, develop deeper insights, make better decisions, and have more successful outcomes.
What will students take away from this course?
They will be more aware of:
- The value of starting with the questions and not the answers.
- The need for objectivity and discipline.
- The importance of evidence-gathering and fact-based decision-making.
They will be more familiar with:
- The foundations upon which all our knowledge and assumptions are based.
- The processes used for real understanding and intelligent decision-making.
- How understanding more about human behavior increases our understanding of ourselves, our social environments, and our work environments.
They will have the ability to:
- Apply proven tools and processes to understand thinking, behavior, and interactions.
- Apply knowledge of basic principles to making better decisions.
- Use the concepts of cultures, behaviors, and learning to improve how they handle issues and situations in the workplace.
It is up to each of you to decide how you want to use what you learn in this class
Some of you will toss it all aside as no more than a box you had to check. Good luck to you. The ones who daily see examples of the things we talked about in class will be the ones with the real competitive advantage.
We talked about these things for 12 weeks
The final exam included 10 multiple choice questions, 10 true-false questions and one essay question. Come back next week, take the simple 10 question multiple choice test, and see how you stack up against a bunch of guinea pigs from the West Indies.