People Are Good
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
I’ve found a new favorite book.
It’s titled Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman. You may have to search for it, because it threatens too many conventional assumptions from our educational, political, economic, and spiritual upbringings. The book’s thesis is simple: People, it turns out, are pretty much always GOOD.
Here’s an excerpt from the book’s opening pages:
This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that has long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media, and erased from the annals of world history.
At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimized by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.
So, what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Human perception of society is an interesting topic. Is there a difference between society as we perceive it and society as it really is? Bregman argues that yes, there is.
In the book’s opening pages the author describes two scenarios involving the emergency landing of a commercial airplane. In the first instance the passengers look out for each other, helping those who need it most, despite the danger and risk, before exiting the plane themselves. In the second scenario, chaos reigns as everyone fends for themselves. Survival becomes personal, and competitive.
When asked which world we live in, research indicates that most people believe modern society is best represented by the second scenario, which is governed by self-serving chaos. But Bregman goes on to demonstrate through multiple historic examples that we actually live in a world best represented by the first scenario:
There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive, and quick to panic. It’s what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls “veneer theory”: the notion that civilization is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits—when the bombs fall, or the floodwaters rise—that we humans become our best selves.
Take, for example, Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in August of 2005. In the days that followed, Bregman writes, 80 percent of the city was flooded. Later that week, multiple national media outlets led with headlines of shootings and violence. Society turned on itself, it was reported. “What angers me the most is that disasters like this often bring out the worst in people,” said the governor of Louisiana.
As it turns out, none of these morbid reports and expectations proved to be true. In fact, just the opposite occurred. Across the city people banded together to support and serve each other, even when their own safety and best interests were at risk. “Katrina didn’t see New Orleans overrun with self-interest and anarchy,” Bregman writes. “Rather, the city was inundated with courage and charity.”
In the months that followed, the chief of police was forced to admit that during the storm’s aftermath, he couldn’t point to a single official case of violent crime.
So, what about Bregman’s theory in the context of business management? The traditional command-and-control model reinforces the need for constant and close supervision. People must be actively monitored, measured, and watched to achieve peak performance. Left to their own volition, workers would surely slack off and slow down. Quality would be compromised. Productivity would fall.
What is the assumption behind this perspective? It’s the very set of false premises Bregman describes. The case for supervision is that people cannot be trusted, on their own, to do what’s right.
Well, that is not what I’ve seen at Hancock Lumber. For a decade we have been pursuing a work culture that disperses power, shares leadership, and reduces the layers of management oversight. In place of supervision, we’ve encouraged people to trust their own voice, use their best judgment, make their own decisions, and be their authentic selves. The results have been consistently positive. The more we’ve trusted our people at work, the better they’ve performed—the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. Time and again, when leadership was shared and the work was self-directed, at the source, the company benefited. The less we supervised, the more we excelled.
Imagine two companies from the same region in an identical industry. At one corporation the prevailing belief is that people are good. In the other company the belief is that humanity is held together by the thinnest of threads and that we are but one misstep away from savagery and chaos. How would each company structure itself based on its view of humanity?
What you expect dictates what you see and how you respond. The expectation drives the outcome. Our entire global model of hierarchy and control assumes that modern humans have descended from a self-serving, survival-of-the-fittest world. But the truth is, those assumptions are wrong.
Take an extreme example, like Nazi Germany. Why did Germans soldiers, in the final months of the war, fight so hard for such a horrid cause?
Once again, Bregman’s book provides the answer. Across hundreds of interviews with former Third Reich soldiers, the answer was clear: German soldiers kept fighting to save the lives of their buddies in the trenches beside them. They weren’t fighting for Hitler. Instead, they carried on for their neighbor, their bunkmate, the fellow human at their side.
Another poignant example from World War II supports Bregman’s claim, as well. It comes from one of the most well-known victims of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Anne Frank, who wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.”
As Anne Frank believed, humans are most always good! This simple truth calls for rethinking centuries of established protocol about social, political, educational, religious, and corporate best practices regarding leadership, control, and oversight. If humans are good, they can be trusted, empowered, and self-guided. If humans are good, they can most often lead themselves.
Watching the evening news may leave you feeling more attuned to reality, but the truth is that it skews your view of the world. The news tends to generalize people into groups like politicians, elites, racists, and refugees. Worse, the news zooms in on the bad apples. The same is true of social media. It’s by tapping into our negativity bias that these digital platforms make their money, turning higher profits the worse people behave.
Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours.
Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.
The book’s thesis is simple: People, it turns out, are pretty much always GOOD.