Joseph Conrad – HR Guru?

Originally posted in December 2012

I recently finished re-reading Joseph Conrad‘s Nostromo, a novel I don’t think I’d read since my mid twenties. It’s a fascinating book, regarded by some critics as one of the best novels written in the twentieth century, and deals with a revolution in a fictional South American country, and the desperate attempts by the ruling Europeans to protect their financial and social position.

What struck me on reading it now is how much of the book deals with the sort of issues people deal with in HR; the title character becomes a disengaged individual (with fatal consequences) because his employers don’t understand his motivation and assume, wrongly,  that he is aligned with their values.

Now don’t worry – I’m not suggesting that Conrad’s novels become CIPD text books (although I have sometimes felt the urge to exclaim “The horror! the horror!” when dealing with a particularly arcane TUPE issue).  Simply that we can find useful guidance for people management in the most unlikely sources.

Conrad also wrote one of the best descriptions of intrinsic motivation  (this time in Heart of Darkness) when he said “I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work–the chance to find yourself. Your own reality–for yourself not for others–what no other man can ever know.”

So what literary or other unusual inspirations have enlightened your management practice?

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