Can the business world learn anything from existential philosophy? Do concepts such as freedom, good and evil, accountability and anxiety have any meaning in a corporate setting?
After reading this book by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block, I have no doubt whatsoever that the answer is a resounding yes. The subtitle “Applying philosophical insight to the real world” is beautifully realized throughout the book.
Existential philosophy states that freedom is a basic condition of human existence. We are always free to choose, and nobody can give anybody else orders. Every time you receive an order, you still decide whether or not to carry it out.
With this basic freedom comes some consequences:
* Anxiety over the choices we make
* Guilt from having said no to ourselves or others
* Death of others and the anticipation of our own death
* Evil, which exists because all persons are free
These consequences are what give meaning and texture to our lives. They are not negatives that a healthy person should avoid.
And with freedom comes accountability. You are responsible for the choices you make, even for the choice of whether to be accountable. Accountability can not be forced on anyone, it must be assumed explicitly.
The book goes on to explain many of these concepts in depth, also illuminating them through stories. And there are many insights to be gathered. The most fundamental result is a complete shift in the relations between managers and employees. If you accept that employees have this basic freedom, then some established facts of employee-manager relations simply melt away.
For instance, it is no longer the job of the manager to motivate the employees (as illustrated in this quote from the book). Employees must choose for themselves whether or not they want to be motivated.
Also commands disappear from the equation. Every order becomes instead an invitation. Many of the performance and reward systems instituted to reward or punish certain behaviour also loose their meanin seen in this light.
The new role of managers, (and indeed anyone else in the organizations) now becomes twofold: To realize ones own freedom, and to create conditions that allow others to do the same. This is done mostly by finding your own inner values, and helping other find theirs. This can be done through hosting the relevant processes.
It was also interesting for me to note, how many of the insights and principles I’m working with today can be arrived at from existential philosophy. I’m talking about the world view that says that emergence is better than control. That people must be respected. That you must know and act from your core values. That you must listen to and accept other world views and opinions.
I highly recommend this book. It is not an easy read, but it is certainly rewarding.