Ebeling, Nikutta & Co.: Why supervisory boards need psychologists

Chief controllers on the couch? That may be appropriate in individual cases. But it is crucial that they bring psychological expertise onto the board.

Bonuses impair intrinsic motivation and the moral compass. Rigid targets are detrimental to creativity. And no: people are by no means inherently selfish. These are three scientific findings that psychologists and sociologists now regard as certain.

Nevertheless, governance structures, compliance systems and manager salaries are still based in many places on other, outdated ideas. People are lazy and need financial incentives. People are bad and need to be strictly controlled. Nothing works without detailed targets. This is still the way many decision-makers think.

How can this discrepancy be explained? We are convinced that a key factor is the fact that supervisory boards are dominated by lawyers and business economists whose academic background dates back decades. At that time, many still believed in the myth of the “homo oeconomicus”, who always strives for his own advantage and acts rationally.

Homo economicus? Homo puppy!

Supervisory boards therefore need experts who are familiar with the psyche and take new findings into account. An ideal basis for this is a degree in psychology, such as that completed by Deutsche Bahn manager and former Vossloh supervisory board member Sigrid Nikutta. Former ProSiebenSat.1 boss and multi-supervisory board member Thomas Ebeling also studied psychology.

Of course, there is not enough room on supervisory boards to bring in a separate expert for every challenge. But if you don’t hire a proven psychologist, you have to work all the harder to ensure that the members of the board also continue their education in this area.

To get started, we can recommend the bestseller “Basically Good – A New History of Humanity” by Rutger Bregmann. The Dutchman succinctly summarizes the current state of psychological and sociological research – and makes it clear that we are more like the friendly-social “homo puppy” than the egoistic-rational “homo economicus”.