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Why Human Beings Aren’t Manageable But Work Is

Why Human Beings Aren't Manageable But Work Is

Bestselling business writer Michael Ballé explains why it’s important for leaders to understand that human beings aren’t manageable, but work is.

We are so used to thinking that rewards shape behavior, and that repetitive behavior becomes habit that we forget to ask “why?” Old school behaviorists and economists greatest victory was to convince us all that:


We cling to that just-so story because it maintains the illusion that people are manageable with the right rewards and the right prescribed behavior.

It’s plain nonsense of course. Every day we come across someone who says “stuff your pay plan, stuff your instructions, I’m going to do my own thing!”

Rewards work, until they don’t. Why? Because human being are not reward driven. They follow the deep cravings of their souls which available rewards fulfill to a larger or smaller extent, now but not tomorrow.

Humans crave stability, but they want change. Humans fear what they don’t know, but constantly explore. Humans crave deeper connections, but want to be left on their own. Humans crave recognition from their tribe, but want to be free to do as they like. Humans crave beauty, but live with the mundane. And so on, endlessly.

The one certain thing evolution has endowed us with is restlessness. We’re incapable to leave well alone. Whatever we do have, we then want the next thing – or something else altogether.

Human beings are not manageable. Only the work is.

Whatever else, we can’t resist a puzzle. We have an inner craving for completion, no matter how momentary it is. The perfect moment, the perfect love, doing a job perfectly.

Humans Beings Aren’t Manageable

People-management systems are built on the idea that if you achieve a checklist of either results or tasks successfully, you’ll get a reward. Jump through the hoop, get a fish. Humans, however, are designed to want the reward for their own reasons, if they find a use for it, and to seek it their own way by finding their own path to game the system.

Work-management systems are built on showing the incompleteness of the work. Pointing out what is still missing so that the job is fulfilled. In lean we talk about:

  • Challenges: where are we challenged by the market? where should we respond?
  • Problems: where is the gap with the standard, the ideal, the way we’d want things to be?
  • Improvements: where is the work and the way we do the work incomplete? How could we make it better?

Most managers try to reassure themselves by specifying the work in ever greater detail, praising those who comply and punishing those who don’t. Then they are surprised of being accused of sucking the life out of work and of creating toxic environments. And still, no matter what pressure they bring to bear, people won’t fully comply.

Financial management has always been obsessed with replacing people by machines. Fields were farmed, lifts had lift operators, banks had bank tellers, accounts departments had clerks, factories had workers. And, for some reason, managers insist on treating the remaining people in their operations as robots that should follow the program.

Nonetheless, for all the disappearing jobs, new jobs keep appearing as people find unexpected ways to use new technologies. And, as consumers, no matter what is on offer we seem to never get enough.

Dissatisfaction Is Not a Problem

Human craving cannot be fulfilled. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. And it’s not a defect either, but the very source of our creativity and inventiveness. Dissatisfaction is not a problem, it’s a blessing that keeps driving us both to invent and to value the inventions of others.

People don’t climb mountains to get a pat on the back. They climb mountains because they’re there. We need to completely rethink theories of motivation built on the quaint idea that pigeons turn levers to get a reward and that behavior can be reinforced thoughtlessly. Think instead that humans seek to understand where rewards are being offered, choose the ones they feel they can use, and map their way to get them. Humans are self-directed and autonomous. And quite smart. And capable of the most insight and ingenuity if they find room for it.

Don’t try to manage people. Instead, visualize where work is incomplete, and let people manage themselves. Support them as they do – they’ll surprise you.

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).


Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).