There are no objective, impersonal “laws” of business. Even all those numbers and ratios won’t change that. At bottom, business and organizations are deeply personal and horribly messy. Until we accept that, we won’t get far in improving how they work.

It’s fashionable to see business as an impersonal activity: as a world governed by objective numbers, financial ratios, and so-called “business fundamentals.”

It’s not like that. Not at all.

At the heart of all business transactions are two intensely personal relationships . The simplest can be summed up in four words: You sell, I buy. That is business. Without buying and selling, there can be no profit, no investment, no reason to produce anything beyond what each individual needs to survive. Do we always buy rationally, based on impersonal factors like price, value, or features? No. We buy from those we enjoy dealing with, even if they are not the cheapest, or even the best in absolute terms. Emotions are as much part of making decisions as thoughts or facts.

As soon as you move beyond individuals making and selling their own goods, on their own, you encounter the second personal relationship. This takes seven words: I work for you, you pay me. Whether it’s in a two- or three-person business in a back room, or some global behemoth employing tens of thousands, this is the essence of any employment contract. Do people always employ those best fitted for the job, in purely rational terms? They do not. They typically employ people they feel most comfortable being with; the ones they think they will probably enjoy having around.

I bring this up because it helps us realize that there are no impersonal laws of business. There is nothing like the “law” of gravity, or most of the “laws” of physics: nothing that works every time and everywhere, regardless of how anyone feels. Business is a series of interactions and relationships between human beings. As they change, so do the interactions. And, like everything else that humans do, beyond purely instinctive, physical actions like breathing, these relationships are, at their heart, matters of choice.

How we arrange to buy, to sell, to work, and to be paid for working, are activities that are as they are because that is how we have chosen to make them happen. We only treat the current patterns as inevitable—as inviolable “laws” of business—because we are so used to them. Yet the modern corporation is barely 100 years old. Recorded human history covers maybe 4000 years or so. So our way of doing business, which we treat as the only possible way to arrange for commerce to take place, was unknown for at least 97.5% of that time.

Should that suggest that we have found the ultimate answer to commercial human interactions? That modern, Western capitalism is the ultimate pinnacle of mercantile achievement? That seems unduly arrogant, even for today’s capitalists. Is it the best answer we have found so far? Probably, yes. Is it the best we can ever find? I don’t think so. Should we stop trying to find others ways? Definitely not.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about relationships in the workplace, especially those between bosses and subordinates. The realities of organizational power and position mean the top jobs are not always held by either the most able or the best leaders. Besides, bad leadership, bad attitudes, and poor management practices are highly contagious. Just being around mean-spirited, aggressive, dishonest, and narrow-minded people, means that some of it will rub off on you. If that wasn’t bad enough, we have unprecedented access to virtually instantaneous communication . . . and mostly use it to waste time, check up on one another, circulate stupid jokes, and feed our personal paranoia.

Do those observations suggest a rational, impersonal, and nearly perfect understanding of set laws of business? Or do they rather indicate a messy, often poorly organized, and imperfectly understood series on person-to-person interactions, characterized mostly by personal emotions and individual neediness?

Our present way of running our organizations are woefully inadequate to what is needed. If burnout and stress are common place—as they —it is because we have chosen to allow them to be so. Like primitive farmers, we utilize slash-and-burn techniques and have not yet reached the point where we can consistently “farm” our finite resources to increase the availability of talent and creativity for the future. We just consume what we have today in grabbing for short-term profits.

It’s easy to give up hope. The task of changing ingrained attitudes to work and business seems beyond anyone’s ability. But it is not beyond the power of many people, working together. Every small step to reject the culture of mindless, short-term, “grab -n-go” management is a step towards finding a better approach. Like drops of water coming together to carve through solid rock, people can change what people have created. Sooner or later, what today we see as inevitable will become as silly and outmoded in our eyes as the penny farthing bicycle or women wearing huge feathered hats and whalebone corsets. How long we continue to fight the forces of change is up to us. The longer we do, the harder the change will be when it finally comes.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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