In management there will always be a tension between the left-wing view that every person’s desire to perform well is thwarted by restrictive organizational structures and policies, and the right-wing rejoinder that people are inherently lazy and need to be kept in line continually. It’s not a question of human nature: Context matters, and each view is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. We understand that while some contexts can bring out the worst in people, others will evoke the very best. We need a vision of perfectibility to give us a sense of progress and improvement, and to help us find those managers who can craft and sustain the contexts that will summon the better angels of our nature without unleashing our devils. This will always be a delicate process, difficult to sustain for any length of time in any one organization.
Perfection may forever be beyond our reach, but optimism is always well within our grasp. As one of Oscar Wilde’s characters puts it in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
David K. Hurst (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to strategy+business. His writing has also appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications. Mr. Hurst is the author of Learning from the Links: Mastering Management Using Lessons from Golf (Free Press, 2002) and Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995, 2002). He was a visiting scholar/practitioner at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., in 1998–99.