Aristotle had to say this about wisdom: “Wisdom is the right combination of will and skill”. I had a link in my inbox this week (one of those euphoric moments when an e-mail has something that takes you away from the daily rigor, even if for a brief while, only to bring you back that much more enriched) – this one that delved on our apparent loss of wisdom. Delving straight into the specific ‘loss’ that prominent psychology researcher Barry Schwartz refers to, he mentions how rules and incentives have forced, or rather clouded, our thinking to ignore practical wisdom in daily lives.
Barry brings up a job description of a typical janitor in a nursing home or hospital and speaks of how the particular job function is so different from ones we encounter in our daily lives – the difference between that of a janitor involves practically no human interaction for 99.99% of the associated tasks. The excellent underlying thought here being that any job description that involves human interactions has to have a scope that is not so rigidly defined so as to limit practical wisdom influencing the daily operations and allowing one to ‘do the right thing’.
The anecdote from the talk that had an impact on me was the specific one relating to how a father buys lemonade at a concession stand for his young son without realizing that it has a small alcohol content. The series of events that unfold separate the father and the son for nearly 3 weeks; more interestingly and rather curiously, the story notes how at every step of the way – the emergency worker, the judge, etc say that it seems awkward but that they are bound by the rules and regulations that govern their daily lives and determine every specific sequence of action they have to follow.
Coming to our daily lives, I am sure each one of us has at least one pet peeve that is a repetitive part of our job which we have very logical reasons for doing differently, but as the obedient soles that we are, don’t disturb the hornet’s nest. If in our daily roles, as empowering leaders, we can create the space for the teams to be that much more practical in following the rules, we would make our workplaces that much better than we found it in the first place. As Barry notes, rules and regulations are a must and even necessary evil of the society for it would be chaos without them. Where we have to make a distinction is to realize where human interactions are involved, and when dealing with these ‘moral’ roles, create the space for individuals to exhibit their practical wisdom. By creating more rules, and incentives for following the rules, we are creating a society that rewards what might actually be expected behavior in the first place.
The anecdote about how having nuclear waste dumps in the local community evoked drastically different responses from Swiss citizen polls, when an incentive was added to the offer, shows how incentives become counterproductive sometimes as you start evaluating ‘benefits’ from following rules. Where people considered it as a responsibility and a duty in the first place became a calculation of whether it was ‘worth’ the incentive.
Considering Barry’s rare expertise in analyzing the economics side of human psychology, he couldn’t help bringing up the fact that the incentives (bonuses) augmenting the rules being part of the economic problems we are dealing with. His proposed solution to fixing the markets isn’t more rules and regulation, neither he is advocating more ethics courses. Rather, in a refreshing way, the onus is on individuals to be “moral exemplars” in every opportune moment, every day of life.
As a frequent listener to Barry Schwartz and other prominent speakers whose lectures revolve around human psychology, I can attest to time spent listening to TED lectures, as being well spent. Here is the complete 20-min talk.
Video Source: TED.com
Image Credit: Bill HR
- The “Scar” in Scarcity
- Crossing The T’s and Dotting the I’s
- Defying Newton
- The Moment Is NOW: Stay There!
- Lost And Found