He liked to like people. Therefore, people liked him,” Mark Twain (pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens) said about one of his characters. It must have been Tom Sawyer, or perhaps more likely, Huckleberry Finn. In any case, we all remember these characters from our childhood readings. The books became famous when they first appeared in America in the 1870s, although many did not like them because they questioned the social order of the time and advocated that children could also learn moral lessons from an ordinary middle class boy such as Tom and even the poor Huck. Was it not only the wealthy upper class that could teach ordinary people, the people thought?
Only last week, the mighty American Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, told the Pakistani leaders that his country was losing its patience with Pakistan. He seemed to take for granted that it was he who was right just because he represented the world’s richest country and only superpower. But ‘might’ does not automatically mean ‘right’. Children, like Tom and Huck, knew that 150 years ago in lower middle-class America. But Secretary Panetta had forgotten it. His words were not the right ones if he wanted to mend fences and re-establish friendships. I could not help being reminded of his colleague in the American Cabinet, Hillary Clinton, who last year also spoke in tough language and was accused of behaving like a “mother-in-law”. She laughed at it, at least, but I am sure she got the message, too, notably that everyone must be shown respect.
Many of us sometimes behave in ways similar to Panetta and Clinton behaved, luckily enough in less crucial situations. But we are, probably, also aware of the mistakes we make when we do so! If we want to have good cooperation and reach results, it is always more productive to have good, horizontal relations, not bossy, authoritarian, and vertical relations. If we want people to be innovative, ask questions, take risks and do all they can to seek optimal results, we know that it is a requirement that we have good relations within our own environment and among colleagues, and with the outside world. We all have bosses, and we must work well with our bosses, too. But bosses should not be bossy. And we must sometimes remind them of that.
Since my own professional competence is in education and development, including organisational development, I have spent a lot of time considering the importance of making people feel comfortable and at ease in their learning and work environment and in their private lives. I have also seen that we often forget our own theories and ideals. We, teachers, seem to be at least as forgetful as others, strangely enough. Today, it is leaders and staff in the management sciences who more clearly honour what educationists have been teaching and preaching in the past.
It is a fact that the so-called ‘flat structures’ in most cases are better in work places, and in Scandinavia we have realised this and practice it, probably, more than many others do. But there must still be rules and regulations for how organisations should work, and there must be defined roles and tasks for the bosses, too. Otherwise, there can be informal leaders taking over without having the required competence. And such leaders can become less democratic than formal leaders.
We, human beings, seem to work best and become more productive if we live in environments that have a fair amount of rules, which are well accepted by all. Even highly creative people seem to work best if everyday life is predictable and simple because they can then focus on the major tasks, not the little things.
Sometimes being friendly, yes, like Mark Twain’s characters and creating work environment that are conducive to productive work, can be misunderstood for wanting people to be toothless and sedate. But that would lead to boredom and laziness.
Creative environments must be dynamic and active. Confrontations are often necessary to achieve better results. Besides, disagreements, debates and challenging each other’s opinions are both natural and necessary forms of human behaviour, not least in work places when we try to find new solutions. Mature, self-confident and well-rounded individuals, in good organisations, welcome this. How we solve problems and conflicts is proof of how good we have become at what we do as individuals, team members and professionals at large.
In my article last week, I mentioned a woman who would look for reasons to disagree, rather than agree with friends and colleagues. She forgot to look for common denominators for common solutions. I don’t think she was a bad person, but she had developed a wrong style. Why had that happened? I believe it at least partly had been caused by the fact that she had worked and done well in competitive international organisations, often in male-dominated environments.
But then, today, in the West’s ‘elbowing culture’, women and men must learn to show more generosity and appreciation towards each other. We will realise that we all reach the best results when we learn to like people - and, therefore, they will like us! Through such relations we will be able to improve the world, or just the little environment we live and work in.
In this article, when I have used wisdom from a children’s writer, I have done that not only because of the advice and morale we can get from such authors, but also in order to draw attention to the fact that it is not only experts, professors and other specialists that can help us in improving relations between states, work environment, and human relations in general.
True, scientific knowledge can help us analyse and understand issues in social and behavioural sciences. But in the end, a fair pinch of common sense is required, and sometimes, only common sense, well, based on non-scientific methods. It is also a fact that there is not a direct straight line from science to practice, for example, that a professor in political science should be a better Prime Minister than someone without any advanced university degrees. Or, a professor in psychology may turn out not to understand the human mind better than a fiction writer, or the American Cabinet Secretary. This, too, leaves all of us humble. And, it leaves all of us with possibilities and responsibility to contribute.
Many years ago, I had a boss at a Norwegian Embassy where I worked that time. He had opinions about the competence of another colleague, and he claimed he had much better subject matter knowledge than the staff in charge of the particular field. I remember, I said that it is not always that a clever boss is the best boss, an ‘average’ leader may be better. My boss, who was a good boss, agreed, and it goes with the story that he was a trained social psychologist himself. But I would add that I also have respect for scientific knowledge, combined with work and life experience, all the way from the ages of Mark Twain’s characters.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.