If we want to do more good for the world, we must first change how we think about our behavior, says Max Bazerman in his book Better, Not Perfect.


It’s a question people often ask Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman: Can you meet with my relative or friend who is applying to Harvard? Perhaps they ask with the hope that it might help them in the admissions process.

Bazerman has obliged in the past, yet, in examining his attitudes toward racial equity more recently, he began to feel uncomfortable helping only people who were bold enough to ask for this favor. After all, while social science research shows most people do not actively harm members of other racial, ethnic, or social groups, people often show favoritism to their own group. “The big story here is that people do favors for other people who are like themselves,” he says.

So, Bazerman decided he would meet with prospective students only after they received their admission decisions to avoid inadvertently reinforcing racial inequities. “If they actually want my wisdom, rather than my influence about their admission decision, I’m probably more useful to them after schools have made their decisions,” he notes.

While Bazerman knew his actions weren’t going to resolve the broader, complicated racial inequity issues facing most organizations, he felt it was just one small way he could do his part, according to his book Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness. In the book, Bazerman shares lessons from his own experiences and provides practical advice to help readers audit their time and activities. He hopes the book will encourage people to examine their own lives to determine how they can come closer to maximizing the good they do in the world.

“I hope that [people] make better decisions and make wiser trade-offs in life,” he says. After all, it’s not just about doing good, he says. “It’s about doing good in more productive ways.”

Setting achievable goals

Philosophers and ethicists talk a lot about what it means to be “good.” The problem, says Bazerman, is that they tend to hold up the ideal rather than the achievable.

“Philosophers talk about purely ethical behavior, but we’re all human,” Bazerman says. “If all we’re told is ‘that’s not good enough’ then we’re going to give up.”

Bazerman’s book closes that gap by drawing lessons from philosophy, yes, but also from behavioral economics, psychology, and negotiation theory to show how we can do more good for the world and the people around us with the tools we already have.

“Philosophers are normative; They tell you what an ideal state looks like. Behavioral scientists tell you how people actually behave,” Bazerman says. “I use a prescriptive approach to provide new insights into how you can create more good—potentially without sacrificing yourself—just by making smarter decisions.”

Bazerman’s guiding light is the philosophy of utilitarianism, which teaches the goal of creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But he tempers that with the principle of “maximum sustainable goodness,” a term he coined based on the environmental concept of “maximal sustainable yield”—that is, the amount of goodness that a person can achieve over time without depleting their ability to do good in the future.

He argues that mistakes and biases in our thinking keep us from realizing that potential. Behavioral psychologists make the distinction between “System 1” thinking, in which we make snap judgements and use heuristics rather than logic to make choices about our behavior, and “System 2” thinking, in which we look at the world realistically and rationally.

Time tradeoffs

Bazerman explains how System 1 thinking causes people to make bad choices, not only for themselves, but also about how to best help others. For example, he draws from negotiation theory to introduce the concept of a trade-off, considering not only what each party gets, but also how much they value something.

If a couple goes out on a date, and they compromise over where to go to dinner and what movie to see, they could both leave feeling unsatisfied. If, on the other hand, the person who cares more strongly about dinner gets to choose the restaurant, and the film buff gets to pick the movie, they could both end up feeling like they had a great night.

In sharing examples of lessons he’s learned in his life, Bazerman suggests how readers may apply the same principles to theirs. In a chapter on time management, for example, he describes an assessment he made 15 years ago when he turned 50 regarding how he could better use his time. While he enjoyed most of his work as a professor, he spent hours each week reviewing papers for academic journals out of a sense of obligation to the profession.

“Then I stopped and thought, ‘What happens if I don’t do some of these reviews?’” he says. “The answer was, someone else will do them.”

It wasn’t just a matter of dumping his work on others. “Some people actually view this as a good opportunity, not a burden,” he says. “So how do we get this away from a 50-year-old and onto the desk of a 27-year-old who will pay more attention and also put more positive value on the experience?”

The key was not just to get out of an unpleasant work situation, but to redirect time and energy into something that would be both more fulfilling for him and also allow him to create more good in the world, such as mentoring doctoral students or commenting on a colleague’s book draft.

“If all I did was go out and party more, that wouldn’t work,” he says. “But if I am in fact using some of that time to do other things to make the world better, then that’s a pretty good trade-off.”

By: Michael Blanding
Source: Forbes