Can You Really Be Anything You Want?
Rick Beaton • Nov 21, 2019 • 5 min read
When I was a young lad in British Columbia, older family friends would often say, “you can be anything you want. The world is your oyster.” I never really knew what an oyster had to do with life and the world, but I appreciated the optimism, sense of freedom and wonder it seemed to represent. Now that I have lived through a lot more of life, I wonder whether it was really true — I suspect not.
The "Blank Slate" Theory
This sentiment captures the spirit of that age. It was based on a view of human nature we now label the “Blank Slate.” Steven Pinker describes it as believing that everyone emerges unscripted from the womb. In the nature versus nurture debate, the stress is strongly in the direction of nurture. We are like empty buckets at birth. Who and what we become is the result of our experiences. We then believed in progress, actualizing the human spirit and that newer is always better. This philosophy became a default setting in modern culture and shaped how we think about most things people related.
Although now largely discredited, the Blank Slate theory of human nature has had a long run and it continues to have a profound impact on organizations. It remains the default mode for how most organizations think of people. HR departments and senior leaders have scaled using it—it’s easier to scale if you believe all people are essentially the same. It’s how we recruit, hire, shift, develop, and promote people and it shapes the traditional resume categories of education, experience, and skills.
Strategies for talent retention and development are also radically impacted by this view of the world. Many assume that everyone can be a manager or leader with the right development path. We move people indiscriminately around the organization and promote the high performers into new roles. The coaching industry that supports business is largely based on this assumption as well. Invest hard work, training and coaching and people will change. All we need to do is provide opportunity. If people don’t succeed it’s because they didn’t work hard enough or learn fast enough.
Here’s the problem. Most of what I’ve described, research has demonstrated to be untrue. This misunderstanding of human nature has contributed to the lack of alignment and dysfunction we find in organizational life today. The issues with culture, inadequately trained and performing employees, underperforming manager/leaders, career paths, teamwork are all directly related to how we think about people and what makes them tick. Fortunately, a better way is emerging.
There was a time a doctor would assume that because all humans are the species homo sapien, they would provide the same diagnosis, treatments and medications for everyone.
Finding Clarity about People
For most, it’s a relief to know that we all have strengths and limitations. We are all born with some innate traits, limits on intelligence and affinities, biology, and personalities. These elements allow us to be great at some things and less than great at others. It’s why a high performing salesperson can then perform so poorly when promoted to senior VP of Sales, and why successful CFOs or COOs underperform when promoted to CEO. Each role demands a different hardwiring.
Our personalities and traits are both similar and unique. We also see this in medicine as it relates to the human body. There was a time a doctor would assume that because all humans are the species homo sapien, they would provide the same diagnosis, treatments and medications for everyone. However, over time, we realized that children have different needs than adults and that male and female physiology and biochemistry are different at points. Now we’re beginning to shape treatments based on an individual’s biochemistry and DNA—it is a new world.
Knowing what can change (competencies that can be learned, character, beliefs and values, history, experience, & skills development, education) and what cannot (intelligence, personality, other innate traits) will go a long way in how we think about people related matters in our organizations.
It’s an exciting time of redefinition in the areas of research that involve people. Researchers are both confirming and challenging ideas from the past. Studies emerge regularly—some more helpful than others. The challenge for organizational leaders is knowing what to discard (and why) and which of the new research trends should be built into a comprehensive, organizational ecosystem. These decisions will impact our employee experience: how we hire, onboard, develop, measure and support performance, build culture, realign workflow and systems, develop teamwork and strategy.
People strategy and the systems that support it are undergoing disruption as significant as what digital cameras did to film and Uber/Lyft have done to taxis. The world may no longer be our oyster, but it is far more exciting for people to know in a more specific, particular way where they fit.