Psycho-Managers: The Myth of Business Schools


Before joining this 2-year management graduate program, I thought I would learn all the secret skills about how to manage people, teams, employees, customers…

Now after several months, I finally realize the truth. Business schools are not teaching us how to manage people, but instead, how to manage operations (processes, organizations…).

Expectations and Disillusionment

When I enrolled, I genuinely expected to learn more about in-depth human nature. To learn more about Dan Ariely’s bionicles, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, or even the controversial how to win friends. But here I am… now spending 6 hours a day learning international accounting principles (or whatever they call it).

The Psycho-Managers

To be fair, a basic understanding of economics, accounting, and marketing, are fundamental assets for the company’s managers.

It is just that I expected more psychology on top.

Isn’t that what managers are supposed to do after all? To motivate teams, to create momentum, to foster a culture, to bring the best out of each member?

Yes, it is. (Or at least it should be.)

And if a school’s vision of a manager is to “analyze numerical data, set monthly tasks and goals with monetary incentives, and find innovative humiliating punishments” — then they are missing the point. They are just training psycho-managers that treat humans as data points.

(Don’t be offended, I am deliberately exaggerating to make a point.)

When I share this concern, people usually have two legitimate reactions:

  • Indeed, business schools need more “people-oriented” management training.
  • Stop complaining about business schools, you should have joined a psychology course if it’s what you really wanted.

One fun fact — and possible explanation — is that… maybe “people management” can simply not be taught.

Can Management Be Taught?

Daniel Kahneman is a superstar psychologist (Nobel Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, probably one the most known worldwide). And… he wrote that teaching psychology might be a total waste of time. (Psychology is really close to my vision of managing people, it is about studying people’s behavior and adjusting our own.)

“When we teach our students about the behavior of people in the helping experiment, we expect them to learn something they had not known before; we wish to change how they think about people’s behavior in a particular situation.

So why can’t psychology be taught?

In 1975, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida of the University of Michigan told students about the famous (and slightly unethical) “helping experiment”.

In that study, multiple subjects were led into individual opaque booths in close proximity to each other and told to talk to the other subjects about their lives and problems via an intercom.

The point of the experiment wasn’t just to give participants a forum to discuss their feelings, it was actually to see how people would react if they thought someone amongst them was dying. At one point, an actor who was involved in the experiment and stationed in one of the booths faked having a seizure while speaking over the intercom, cried out for help, then apparently collapsed. Do people then from the other booths come to help?

The Real Experiment

But it does not end here. Now imagine this little exercise: YOU now watch the videos of this experiment. And you have to GUESS for each subject if the person is going to help the seizure victim immediately or not.

And for more challenge, YOUR FRIEND has to guess as well, but I already told him/her beforehand about the results of the previous experiments and what is the percentage of people who usually help.

The studies (led in reality on two different test groups; only one knowing the percentage) demonstrated that your friend is NOT going to guess any better than you even know the percentage.

The bottom line? People are not adjusting their own perceptions after learning facts about human behavior. “Teaching” psychology or management would therefore be useless.

Training Better Managers — Our Last Hope

Ultimately, Nisbett and Borgida did find a way to get people to “learn” from the “helping experiment” results and become better at guessing: Feed them convincing anecdotes.

They told a third group the procedure of the “helping experiment,” showed them the videos, then said that the two people in the videos had not come to the aid of the seizure victim. With this information, the participants accurately predicted the low proportion of people who aided the seizure victim.

So I guess our only hope for becoming better at managing people is to make more and more case studies.

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