Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, makes the following statements about wise people:
- They know when and how to make exceptions to rules;
- They are good at improvisation, necessary because problems tend to be ambiguous and ill-defined;
- They possess and use moral skills in service of others; and
- They are made and not born.
A propos the last item, he believes that they gain wisdom through experience. In a work context, they need encouragement to try new things, permission to fail, and opportunities to find wise mentors. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that all of these things are close to my heart.
Schwartz says that practical wisdom of this kind is less common in our culture today because of our over-dependence on rules and incentives to protect against error. Each time something goes wrong, we layer on more rules to ward off disaster and we tweak incentives in the hope that employees do the right thing out of self-interest. In doing so we reinforce the notion that employees cannot be trusted to do the right thing on their own accord.
Relying on rules and incentives takes discretion out of the hands of employees. It also gives them fewer opportunities to practise wisdom, and discourages them from acting wisely. Is it any wonder then that low morale and mediocrity is so pervasive in our institutions and corporations today?