Management Rewired: Your Best Bet?

Feedback, praise, criticismall useless. Instead, put human psychology to work for you, Charles S. Jacobs' new book advises

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Jacobs convincingly argues that punishment, rewards, criticism, and praise are a waste of a manager's time

The Bad: Even the author acknowledges that his talk-therapy-style management techniques require more effort than employing carrot and stick

The Bottom Line: Reading this book will boost the effectiveness of many a corporate drill sergeant

Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work andOther Surprising Lessons fromthe Latest Brain ScienceBy Charles S. JacobsPortfolio; 216 pp.; $25.95

It's time for those annual performance reviews, but the boss's manner tends to the boorish. He ham-handedly tells one of his office workers that she was "totally satisfactory this year!" Then he advises a middle manager to work on his body odor. O.K., this is lifted straight from the second season of The Office, but even if the last evaluation you gave was as lame, take heart. It's of no consequence, according to Charles S. Jacobs. He persuasively argues in Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, that criticism, praise, rewards, and punishment are a waste of a manager's time.

Jacobs builds this contrarian position by borrowing from the fields of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and even mythology. He starts by citing a major contribution of contemporary neuroscience: the recently exploded myth of the brain as a recording device. It turns out there's no objectivity, and reality is actively constructed in the mind. Every experience is filtered according to the individual's "cognitive framework," consisting of memories, expectations, and emotions. "With all of us unwittingly operating off of our personal versions of reality," notes Jacobs, "conflicts are inevitable."

Starting from that premise, Jacobs, who has spent decades consulting for blue-chip companies, proposes a radical rethinking of management techniques. First, we need to relinquish the belief that people are rational. Recent research has shown that emotions hold more sway over our decisions than reason; we turn to logic merely to justify our choices after the fact. Oddly enough, relying on emotion actually produces better, more consistent decisions that draw on experience because emotion and memory are so intertwined in the brain's amygdala.

Much of what we've learned about how the brain works can be traced to the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging in the early 1990s. Management theory, on the other hand, hasn't changed much since the first half of the 20th century, when the field of psychology was dominated by behaviorists such as Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Jacobs points out that giving a top performer a 5% raise should be motivating—unless that employee was expecting 7% and the reward is perceived as a slight. Meanwhile, punishments are useless because people automatically take steps to fend off cognitive dissonance. In other words, we make excuses to preserve our self-image in the face of criticism.

"Whether we're a chimpanzee or a corporate employee, we don't like being controlled by others," says Jacobs. Instead of trying to alter behaviors by fiat, he recommends that managers stop managing. Employees should set their own objectives, critique their own performance, and come up with their own strategies for improvement. People are self-motivating, Jacobs says, especially when they feel they're doing meaningful work. (In case this strikes anyone as a dubious assertion, the author points out that engaging tasks stimulate the brain's dopamine system and deliver the same "high" we get from food and nicotine.)

So what's a befuddled boss to do? Managers are better served by using subtle tactics to influence employees. Understanding that people are strongly motivated by emotion, he recommends that leaders create evocative "narratives" about an organization's mission. For a small startup, it could be as basic as a David-vs.-Goliath plotline.

Here's an example of a rewired manager in action: A team with a specific goal feels it's understaffed. Jacobs suggests the manager defer to the team's point of view rather than react irritably. Acknowledge that the team is shorthanded, he advises, then convince members that adding staff would dilute their accomplishment.

The book draws parallels between the couch and the cubicle. The goal of the talk therapist is to guide the patient away from self-defeating mindsets. But it's hard to imagine the average boss having the patience to apply these techniques, and Jacobs acknowledges that his approach takes more effort than employing carrot and stick. Even so, reading Management Rewired might soften the touch—and boost the effectiveness—of many a corporate drill sergeant.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.