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Can Management Be Beautiful?

What are the limits of "scientific management" and its associated mindset and toolbox? And what is the alternative? We delve into what we know from the arts, history, and philosophy about the power of beauty to inspire, unleash and unite.
  • Creative or empathic work. Work that can be easily standardized is becoming less important for humans to execute. Over time, routine work, from bus-driving to copyediting, will be automated using artificial intelligence. As routine work disappears, we will be left with work which depends upon more uniquely human traits and abilities like empathy, creativity, and ethics. These are not the skills scientific management was designed to support.
  • Inspiring the next generation of employees. Young people today want their jobs to be personally and socially meaningful. According to a recent Gartner Research poll, more than half of respondents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had “made [them] question the purpose of [their] day-to-day job”. It is not enough for companies to have a purpose statement. Employees increasingly want to believe in the companies and work which absorb the major portion of their waking hours. The tools of scientific management — goals, quotas, evaluations, monetary incentives and the threat of being fired — are insufficient to motivate today’s knowledge workers.
  • Continuous transformation. The pace of business change is accelerating to keep pace with technology and shifting societal expectations, such as decarbonization. As the pace increases, scientific change management approaches, which tell us what to change but not why, leave employees exhausted. Classical approaches rely on top down prescription, overwhelming employees with a sense that any change is an alien event happening to them, rather than a forward-looking opportunity they are a part of and have ownership over.

Pursue infinite goals

Tactical goals are undoubtedly useful in many contexts. But where appropriate, dare to treat such goals as an oblique result of pursuing excellence. Imposing finite goals provides collective consistency and protection for near-term priorities, but sometimes at the expense of autonomy, aspiration, or personal meaning.

Allow people to work on whole problems

Encourage curiosity and ownership of whole problems, from inception to completion. It may be more efficient to subdivide and parcel out tasks, but less likely to inspire. For those that must naturally be subdivided, develop narratives that show how all activities are essential parts of the whole, encouraging ownership and cohesion across the firm.

Pursue prosocial effects

Beauty is not just seen or heard; it is also felt. It reaches for the heart, so to speak. Because it is so personal, beauty can also be a powerful interpersonal agent. To consider beauty together, or better, to create beauty together, is to build a lasting understanding and a common purpose. Through beauty, we learn to embrace causes larger than ourselves. We learn also to take joy in others’ success — the hallmark of lasting social collaboration. And so caring for others in and through one’s work turns from a duty to a voluntary commitment.

Inspire, don’t compel

When is the last time you put your all into something you were told to do, or incentivized to do, as opposed to something chosen as meaningful to you? It rarely happens, and though to compel is simpler as a manager than to inspire, efforts towards the latter are undoubtedly more effective.

Encourage alignment with excellence, not hierarchy

Goals may be best identified from the mountain top, tasks not so much. The more creative, adaptive, and fast-paced the work, the greater the need for individual autonomy. Even so, employees need an orientation that integrates diverse approaches into a harmonious whole. Aesthetic excellence provides that self-steering orientation toward the larger cause. It is also, in many ways, less arbitrary and more convincing than a principle of because-I-said-so.

Cultivate pride in your workplace

Recall the first home you had that you were proud of. How did your experience of that space differ from your experience in a college dorm, or childhood home? You likely made sure you actually liked the art you hung, and took much more care cleaning. Similarly, when we take pride in something, especially something we believe to be beautiful, we take more care in preventing corrupting forces. In your first home, the corrupting forces were likely dust bunnies and dirty dishes; in the workplace, corrupting forces are apathy, corporate decline, harassment, and corruption itself.

Facilitate individual journeys

Scientific management tries to distill individuality out of the workplace. But for some jobs, especially those that are more creative in nature (including, as Frank Knight insisted, management), to standardize is to obstruct excellence.

Sources & Notes


3 Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper & Brothers, 1911, archive.org, Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
4 Frank H. Knight in Iowa City, 1919–1928. (2011). United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.