Humans are relational beings. This is something we have to pay attention to when designing organisations and cities.
Knowledge @ BI: Øyvind Kvalnes about management
In the first week of the new year the manager of an architecture firm came to visit me. He sought an answer to one of the most fundamental philosophical questions: What is a human being? His firm will be advising one of Norway’s largest cities on how to design their city for its inhabitants in the coming decades.
Before proceeding with this task, he wanted to clarify what it actually means to be a human being. There are a range of assumptions around about the distinctive characteristics of humans. These are informed by centuries of philosophical and scientific pondering. The architect aimed to base his urban development advice on the best possible understanding of what it actually means to be human. To this end, we sat down to have a philosophical conversation.
The starting point for examining what a human being is, can be introspection. What does it mean to be me? Socrates’ motto was «Know thyself». This is often interpreted in an individualistic way. Anyone seeking to truly know him- or herself, should find a desolate spot, and search the soul for answers. Block out the social noise and find out who you really are.
Philosopher Guttorm Fløistad has pointed out that Socrates was probably more concerned with the relational dimension of human existence. In this respect, «know thyself» means observing your own community and reflecting upon your role in it. How am I a significant person in the lives of other people? How are other people significant in my life? What is my role in the particular communities I belong to?
Socrates’ message was that humans are relational beings. You become acquainted with yourself primarily by being with other people.
Wired to connect
More than two thousand years after Socrates, neuroscientists have reached the same conclusion. They have researched the brain activity of people who experience separation from others, and are astonished by the results.
In the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect Matthew D. Lieberman describes how our brains are designed to connect. Social isolation wears us down. To lose or be separated from close friends can be as painful as having an arm cut off.
The researchers explain how being a human involves belonging to a social network which, at its best, is characterised by mutual support and collaboration. We all depend on the energy that can only be found through recurring contact with others.
Punk legend Joe Strummer also reached the same conclusion. «Without other people, you are nothing», he says in the documentary Julien Temple directed about him after his death. This came from a musician who for several years was hard and dismissive towards the people around him, but who lived to regret it.
A self-fulfilling assumption
The students at business schools around the world still learn that a rational human is a being who seeks to maximise its self-interest. It is human nature to go for the maximal individual gain in any situation.
This basic principle of economics is taught to young students, and shape their self-awareness and their view of others. The Indian leadership researcher Sumantra Ghoshal has warned that the assumption can become self-fulfilling. If we tell young people that they are self-interest maximisers, then gradually that is what they become.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) claimed that we cannot assume that the butcher, the brewer and the baker are motivated by their goodwill for others, but rather that they are driven by self-interest.
Across the table, the architect objects. His father is a baker, and refuses to quit the job, because who else will make sure people get quality bread on their tables? He is motivated by goodwill and concern for others, and not just a narrow-minded desire to care for himself and his people.
Cities and organisations of the future
Supported by Socrates and neuroscience, we can say that humans are, at their core, relational beings. The most natural thing for humans is to seek contact with others, in order to provide and receive support and energy, (not to mention love). At our best, we establish constructive and supportive alliances, and create what the Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen calls Miracles of Collaboration.
One thing we do know about human behaviour, which is especially relevant to the architect, is that it is contagious. For better or for worse, we are likely to see more of the traits and behaviours that are popular around us. This is a vital insight for leaders and others who are designing the social meeting points and organisations of the future.
City spaces and buildings have the potential to be arenas for energizing encounters between human beings, and can enable people to become involved in small and large collaborative miracles.
This article was published as an opinion piece on leadership in Dagens Næringsliv 21 January 2019 (and online the previous day).
Text: Philosopher and Associate Professor Øyvind Kvalnes, Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.