Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
Major criticism of the scientific management was that it tended to make workers into robots or machines. Several social scientists referred to this theory as merely the machine theory of organization. Its core idea was to gain maximum benefits for employers, thus creating opposing interests between workers and the management.[i]
After the Second World War, social scientists and psychologists began to take interest in worker related issues. They theorised that though the workers were getting higher salaries and incentives the sense of contentment wasn’t there. Elton Mayo and his colleagues conducted what came to be known as Hawthorne Experiments at Western Electric’s plants to understand the problems faced by the workers and the larger social impact of scientific management. Their major finding was that workers demonstrated an explicit preference to be treated as human beings first and employees next. These studies became the basis for the Human Relations movement. Human Relations school emphasises the social and psychological aspects of an individual’s experience at workplace rather than technology, job, and mechanical requirements.[ii] As a result several theories were proposed, such as the now famous Theory X and Theory Y.[iii]
Sri Aurobindo speaks of two operational forces which could either modify or frustrate the consummation of the age of reason. First is the over-stretched application of science to social and human realms. In his words:
“Rationalistic and physical Science has overpassed itself and must before long be overtaken by a mounting flood of psychological and psychic knowledge which cannot fail to compel quite a new view of the human being and open a new vista before mankind. At the same time the Age of Reason is visibly drawing to an end; novel ideas are sweeping over the world and are being accepted with a significant rapidity.”[iv]
The Human Relations movement is one manifestation of this new view of the human being which is now the most widely accepted view in the field of business management.
The second operational force, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the increasing influence of Eastern spiritual thought which emphasizes greater subjectivism in understanding human nature and behaviour. He writes:
“The East, as the result of its awakening, follows its own bent and evolves a novel social tendency and culture, that is bound to have an enormous effect on the direction of the world’s civilization…it will not be in favour of any re-ordering of society on the lines of the still current tendency towards a mechanical economism which has not ceased to dominate mind and life in the Occident. The influence of the East is likely to be rather in the direction of subjectivism and practical spirituality.”[v]
We have already seen the impact the Japanese thought has made in the field of business management. The Toyota Way[vi] is a shining example of that. The fact that in India also we are seeing a new and gradually expanding school of thought in management which draws inspiration from Indian thought is another indication of this growing trend. Prof. S.K. Chakraborty has written extensively on the inner dimensions of management, business ethics and role of human values.
The Management Centre for Human Values at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta “enshrines more than two decades of aspiration and effort to hold up to the members of human organizations and institutions – in India and elsewhere – contemporary adaptations from the perennial corpus of Indian Psycho – Philosophical wisdom. It is completely nondenominational. It also embodies the striving towards evolving the ‘Vedantic Ethic’ from the Indian deep structure, bridging a vital gap between the ‘Protestant Ethic’ from the Far West and the ‘Confucian Ethic’ from the Far East. A large segment of managers and professionals in India has for long been awaiting filling up of this end.”[vii] M.S. Srinivasan at Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Integral Management, Pondicherry[viii] has been leading the effort to bring Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual thought into the field of business studies. We are also witnessing many conferences on the themes of Spirituality, Leadership and Management that attract both academics as well as business leaders. The Delhi based Faculty of Management Studies hosts such a conference annually. However, these are still glimpses of what is yet to come.
A quick look into the history of evolution of management as a field of practice reveals its somewhat unorganised and unsure beginnings. Major advances in physical sciences eventually encouraged social scientists to apply scientific approach and methods in fields concerned with human behaviour and individual and societal life. The field of human management also saw such application of science.
Scientific management definitely led to increased productivity in the beginning. At the same time it also revealed that workers when turned into automated machines may not perform at their full potential or would soon feel a sense of discontent because fiscal reward only serves as a limited incentive or motivator. In a way, the individual reason led to the development of scientific management and it was individual reason again, combined with a newer and deeper view of a human being, which uncovered some of the serious shortcomings of this approach, giving birth to the Human Relations movement. As workers become more aware of their inherent worth as human beings first, they refuse to be treated like a piece of machine with an assigned task or as part of a mechanism of laws governing the production. They challenge any workplace practice that dehumanises them in any way.
Over a period of time progressive organisations begin to recognize that productivity and success are obtained not merely by controlling all the factors at the workplace, but by actively contributing to the individual and social well-being and development of all of their employees. The modern management practice, therefore, is to rank organisations based on several humanistic factors such as employee initiative, loyalty, engagement and adaptability alongside worker efficiency.[ix]
Sri Aurobindo had concluded, decades prior to the present Human Relations movement that the outcome of the application of science to human aspects will lead to two idea-forces of master potency —
“the democratic conception of the right of all individuals as members of the society to the full life and the full development of which they are individually capable.” Additionally, “there is this deeper truth which individualism has discovered, that the individual is not merely a social unit; his existence, his right and claim to live and grow are not founded solely on his social work and function.”
An individual spends vast majority of time at his or her occupation. If somehow it could help, in a small way, to live life fully and greatly, and to develop the individual’s capabilities and potentialities, wouldn’t that be a much needed improvement both for the life of an individual employee as well as the collective life of the organisation? But the next question arises – what is meant after all by life and when is it that we live most fully and greatly?
“Life is surely nothing but the creation and active self-expression of man’s spirit, powers, capacities, his will to be and think and create and love and do and achieve. When that is wanting or, since it cannot be absolutely wanting, depressed, held under, discouraged or inert, whether by internal or external causes, then we may say that there is a lack of life.”[x]
This requires a more subjective view of human life, aspiration and progress.
In what way can an organisation encourage this life-spirit in its employees? What role does subjectivism play in this future progress that an organisation must make if it wants to evolve further and move closer to its deeper purpose of existence? What are some of the challenges and potential pitfalls on the path of subjectivism – for an individual as well as the organisation? These are some of the questions we will explore in the next article in our series, The Organisational Cycle.
[i] Hobson, J. 1914. Work and Wealth, A Human Valuation. New York: Macmillan, p. 207.
[ii] Drucker (1952), Practice, pp. 60-61; Drucker, Management, pp. 81, 91, 94, chap. 7
[iii] Douglas McGregor (1960), Leadership and Motivation: Essays of Douglas
McGregor, ed. Warren.
[iv]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 22.
[v]Sri Aurobindo, p. 23.
[x]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 20, p. 242-43.