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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: The Human Mind

You Are What You Think

Richard S. Tedlow
Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face — and What to Do about It
(Portfolio, 2010) 

Michael J. Mauboussin
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition
(Harvard Business Press, 2009)

Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard
(Broadway, 2010)

Paul Sullivan
Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t
(Portfolio, 2010)

Daniel H. Pink
Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
(Riverhead, 2009) 

In 1931, Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American scientist and philosopher, coined the phrase “the map is not the territory” to distinguish the words we use to describe reality from reality itself. He said that we tend to confuse the map with the territory, and we often don’t realize that we are confused. We communicate with others as if we all share the same map — and the same world — which causes conflict and collisions.

General semantics, the discipline that Korzybski pioneered, studies the relationships between the map and territory: the ways in which the words we use affect how we think and, ultimately, how we act. In the decades since he introduced his pioneering concepts, we have learned — in part because of technologies such as fMRI that enable neuroscientists to study how the human brain works in real time and full color — that Korzybski’s theories tell only part of the story. Words and thoughts are not always accurate reflections of reality, but they can and do provide the impetus for reshaping reality.

This year’s best business books on the human mind explore the implications of the relationship between perception (what we see) and reality (what is), and argue for the use of mind-awareness approaches in managing real-world problems and issues. Neuroscience research has begun to confirm that brain connections are formed socially; when two people connect through a conversation, their neural pathways (as illuminated by fMRI scans) take on similar patterns. These changes in brain patterns are reinforced by further conversation — so that an organization that successfully draws employees into repeated patterns of thought and action may literally rewire their neural pathways. These pathways are further reinforced by the reactions of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals within the body.

Each of these books, in its own way, explores the contradictions between these findings and the conventional wisdom about behavior and the workplace. The authors integrate neuroscience into everyday life, shine a light on how we map the territory of our perceived environment, and help us figure out ways to map that territory more constructively.

Deniers Never Prosper

In Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face — and What to Do about It, Harvard Business School professor and business historian Richard S. Tedlow tells tabloid-worthy tales of what happens when business leaders find reality so unappetizing that they refuse to acknowledge it. The stories are of well-known companies, including Ford, A&P, IBM, and Coca-Cola, and the details and drama that Tedlow packs into them earn the book the title of best business book of the year on the human mind.

The executives featured in the stories travel different paths to failure, but they all separate themselves from reality by acting as if their maps are the territory. They refuse to adjust course even in the face of opposition from trusted advisors and incontrovertible evidence that they are following the wrong path. Thus, for example, Henry Ford’s success with the Model T blinded him to the desires of his customers, and gave General Motors the opportunity to capture a winning share of the automobile market with a broader range of models and options. And the executives at A&P stuck with the grocery chain’s private-label products even as their customers defected en masse to supermarkets that carried the national brands they saw advertised on TV.

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