“Wired to Care,” or not

Wired to Care will make some readers crazy with love. Others, though, will view its message with deep skepticism. At its heart, “Wired to Care” offers a management manual for those who think business cannot be run by the numbers. “Quantitative data and facts are no substitute for real-world experience and human connection,” write Dev Patnaik and his word wizard, Peter Mortensen.

The premise is that business people will do better when they take the time to understand others – customers, partners, suppliers, potential acquisition targets. If it sounds a bit like Dale Carnegie, well, it should. Carnegie gets a big hug from Patnaik early on, for noting the obvious, that “it’s just human nature to be interested in people who are interested in you.” What does it mean for business? Patnaik says “If you want to create products and services that other people care about, you should put aside your problems and start caring about other people’s lives.”

Not profits, not sales goals – people’s lives. We read a few pleasing success stories that prove the point. Lou Gerstner saves IBM because, as an ex-customer, he knows what customers really need. Zildjian thrives for 400 years by its ability to constantly shift where its customers want it to go. Nina Planck divines that British consumers really want fresh, locally grown produce, and creates a booming business in farmers’ markets.

Patnaik then invokes science to give the theory something less squishy to stand on. In fact, he waves the neuroscience wand, discussing things like the discovery of mirror neurons by a team of Italian scientists. He also looks at research in cognitive science that shows why it’s hard for us to identify with people who aren’t like us. It’s the gentlest, most palatable science discussion a businessperson could hope for, and it blesses the book with the miraculous secrets brain science reveals. What business can’t use miraculous secrets?

To be fair, Patnaik takes care to point out that the research cited “suggests” things, rather than being definitive. But you would have to be a careful reader not to get swept up by the idea that we are in fact wired to work together, to want to connect. Hence the chapter on the Golden Rule, arguing that business success starts by revising that fabled rule, changing ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ to ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’ (By the way, Patnaik gives us the biological basis of The Golden Rule, the less felicitous ‘reciprocal altruism.’)

It’s a tempting argument, but the book sits under a couple of huge shadows. One is cast by “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which argues in part that many successful companies run into trouble exactly because they listen too closely to their most important customers, and miss important market shifts. Patnaik does try to show how empathy can overcome “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” He looks at ‘the car wreck in slow motion” that has been the Big Three automakers over the last several decades, and argues that the automakers gradually turned Michigan into a vast corporate town, the world they wanted to exist, and removed themselves from the world they actually had to compete in. He may be right, but a weakness of the book is that it does not do much to explain how companies can avoid this problem.

Another shadow comes from the obvious problem that we are not wired to care for everyone, and some people seem wired to care for little but themselves. Empathy may have evolutionary advantages, but it also comes with costs, and in business, looking out for others can make a company look less profitable than more selfish rivals.

Still, it is hard not to like “Wired to Care.” The book reads well, and can be finished in a middling-length plane ride, say. Its business anecdotes are powerful. In fact, the whole thing plays on our mirror neurons. You want to empathize with Patnaik’s nice, smart, caring, successful managers. You want to be like them. Unless, of course, you don’t.

Update: here’s a good review from the San Jose Mercury News.

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