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Finding Business Solutions in the Humanities

At most colleges and universities in the U.S., the schools of humanities and business traditionally have not crossed paths. While you might find business majors in humanities classes, mostly because they are required to take a certain number of electives, it is the rare humanities major who will enroll in a business course. The reason could have more to do with culture than interests. Business seems to draw people with a more fiscally conservative mindset, whereas the humanities tend to draw more liberal minded students. The BA’s and MA’s do not often mingle with the MBA’s.

However, the line dividing business and humanities is blurring. More and more businesses are looking to the humanities for employees or new perspectives on solutions, not only “hard skills,” such as marketing, communications, and graphic arts. Companies are increasingly seeking expertise in the social sciences — anthropology, sociology, and psychology. In 2011, at the iPad 2 launch, Steve Jobs said, It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough. That it’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

For many years, Intel had an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world. In fact, many colleges and universities now offer classes specifically in business psychology and business anthropology.

Searching for Business Solutions in the Humanities

Finding business solutions in the social sciences makes sense. After all, every aspect of business involves humans. Understanding why people think, feel, behave, and interact the way they do can inform business decisions in several areas, including the following:

  • Marketing and consumer behavior
  • Organizational theory and culture
  • International business, including multicultural understanding

Increasingly, businesses are focusing on their internal corporate culture to spark innovation and boost productivity by making their workforce more collaborative and “agile” and hiring people who are the right fit for their culture. They are looking for insight into why customers buy (or don’t buy) their products and services. Large companies even try to gain advantage by analyzing what leaders at competing companies say, how they say it (tone and body language) and to whom, and how others respond to it.

Finding the Human Factor in Business

I have always been fascinated by the human factor in business, specifically as I have dug more deeply into human participation in business. I work in an area of business called mergers and acquisitions (M&A), which is ripe with human involvement and steeped in fear dynamics. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term fear dynamics, please read my article, Defining Fear Dynamics.) These M&A transactions involve much more than valuing assets and crunching numbers. They also involve individual feelings, which present themselves through fear dynamics, which are often at the root of failed business deals. For example:

  • Fear of future regret, “losing face,” or “being played” may cause either party to push for unrealistic concessions.
  • Fear of the future — challenges related to taking on a new business or no longer having the business as part of one’s life — can make a party hesitant to close a deal. You often see this manifest when a party makes demands late in negotiations that do not make sense or appear to come out of left field.
  • An attorney’s fear of disappointing a client can cloud judgment to the detriment of the negotiating process. An attorney may feel the need to be more aggressive when a more accommodating approach would better serve client goals. Often an attorney will feel more accountable to the result and perceive that a client expects an attorney to solve every problem, even those that are not solvable. If the self-worth of the attorney is too wrapped up in client affirmation, it is likely that at some time poor decisions will be allowed to occur or the attorney will not feel empowered to challenge a client when what is best is for the client to take a break and refocus on the actual goals of the transaction.
  • An advisor’s fear of not being respected in the transaction can make the advisor feel he needs to prove himself by recommending unrealistic economic positions rather than engaging the client to figure out what the client needs and then working to achieve that goal.
  • Self-doubt in any person involved in a negotiation can create unnecessary anxiety which can lead to any number of fear-based behaviors, therefore amplifying issues caused by initial fears. Some of these behaviors can be (i) retreating from the process and therefore not creatively engaging to solve problems, (ii) reverting to old solutions that may not fit the situation, (iii) failing to adjust when “curveballs” occur in a deal, being unable to adapt, and (iv) being unable to think and provide thoughtful and reflective feedback to the team or client.

Sadly, when fear motivates people’s behavior, everybody notices the behavior but nobody understands and very few question the underlying cause. As a result, we often respond to the fear-based behavior in counterproductive ways driven by our own fears and frustration instead of addressing the root cause of the aberrant behaviors. We react to emotion emotionally instead of rationally, which is a normal reaction and really a part of the human condition but can make matters worse.

Humanities and the Social Sciences to the Rescue

This is where the social sciences can help. Anthropology, sociology, and psychology all study various aspects of human thought and behavior. When we begin to understand the why behind the what, we are better able to choose a rational over an emotional response. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to what appears to be an irrational thought and behavior, we ask “Why?” Why is that person acting the way she is? Why did he say that? Is the person struggling with an internal issue, or is this behavior due to a group dynamic? Asking questions such as these is a good start, and it may be all that is needed in an irrational situation. Even if the questions cannot be answered, the mere act of acknowledging that these issues, is helpful in handling the dynamic. In these types of situations, just asking the question will help facilitate the process of working through the dynamic because by being able to even ask the question you have stopped and taken a step back and are not embroiled in the dynamic.

However, being able to answer the questions is even better. With a deeper understanding of what motivates people to think and act the way they do, both individually and in group settings, we are better equipped to interpret behaviors objectively and respond in more productive ways. Such insight is often available through the social sciences.

I am not suggesting that you return to college, but when you are about to engage in a major business transaction, such as a merger or acquisition, I encourage you to have someone on your team who has a deep understanding of human behavior and group dynamics. You may not need to hire a psychologist or an anthropologist, but you should certainly look for team members or outside advisors who have knowledge and expertise that extends beyond the confines of the technical foundation of their profession.

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

About the Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit

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