How relevant is William James in the modern workplace?

Hint: Incredibly so!

How relevant is William James in the modern workplace?

Here is another ‘big hitter’ who is so relevant to today’s workplace challenges, as in the history of philosophical and psychological history, few stars shine as brightly as William James. Born in 1842, James was a pioneering American giant whose work laid the foundation for modern psychology and philosophy. Perhaps his most enduring contribution was his pragmatic philosophy, which emphasised the practical consequences of ideas and the importance of experiential learning. In a world increasingly dominated by theoretical abstractions, James called for a more grounded approach to understanding reality and this remains just so relevant today. His emphasis on the value of experimentation, observation, and empirical validation has significantly influenced fields ranging from psychology, philosophical understanding to scientific research methodologies.

One of James' most influential works, ‘The Principles of Psychology,’ published in 1890, is still considered a cornerstone of psychological literature, influencing many who came after him. His exploration of the human mind, consciousness, and the stream of thought laid the groundwork for modern psychology's focus on cognitive processes and introspection. James’ nuanced understanding of the complexities of human consciousness has direct implications for today's research on mental health, artificial intelligence, and the study of consciousness itself.

James' exploration of religious experiences and the human connection to spirituality also maintains its relevance in contemporary discourse. In his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience,’ published in 1902, he explored the subjective nature of religious encounters, and the diverse ways individuals seek and experience ‘the divine.’ In an era marked by both spirituality and scientific scepticism, James' approach to reconciling the two remains invaluable. His emphasis on understanding religious experiences from a psychological and phenomenological perspective has paved the way for important dialogues bridging science and spirituality.

His thoughts on ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ continue to engage modern philosophers and neuroscientists, especially his exploration of the relationship between individual choice and the forces which challenged the deterministic views prevalent at the time and anticipated contemporary debates about the nature of human decision-making. As he said: “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.” In an age where advancements in neuroscience provide new insights into the neural underpinnings of choice, James’ nuanced perspective on free will stimulates ongoing discussions about the interplay between biology, psychology, and philosophy.

The applicability of James' ideas extends to practical spheres such as education, workplace motivation and self-improvement. His emphasis on the power of habit and the role of willpower in shaping behaviour remains pertinent to personal development strategies and educational methodologies. To quote James: “Our view of the world is truly shaped by what we decide to hear.” Isn’t that interesting, superb, what we ‘decide’ to hear! Free will and the fact that we make choices, whether conscious or subconscious, reside with us. James' insights into the psychology of habits and the challenges of self-control continue to inform strategies for overcoming procrastination, developing healthy habits, and achieving long-term goals.

So, what do we learn from William James about the modern workplace?

William James may have lived in a different era, but his insights hold valuable lessons for us all in the modern workplace, and in life. His pragmatic philosophy, emphasis on human psychology, and holistic approach to understanding human behaviour offer guidance that can enhance productivity, teamwork, and overall well-being in today's professional environments. How? Well, I guess the they can be summed up six distinct but interrelated areas:

Pragmatism and Problem-Solving

James’ philosophy of pragmatism, which focuses on the practical consequences of ideas, has direct relevance in the modern workplace. Businesses thrive when they are agile and responsive to constantly changing circumstances. By adopting a pragmatic mindset, employees can approach challenges with flexibility and a willingness to adapt strategies as needed. He gave us this advice: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” This approach encourages innovative problem-solving and helps organisations navigate the complex and dynamic business landscape. And he was all about the practicalities of getting stuff done, not over-thinking: "If merely 'feeling good' could decide, [then] drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."

Psychology of Motivation

His insights into human motivation and the power of will are particularly useful in understanding employee engagement. In a time where remote work and virtual collaboration are prevalent, maintaining a motivated workforce is crucial. Recognising the role of intrinsic motivation, finding personal meaning and fulfilment in our tasks, can inspire employees to go above and beyond mere job responsibilities. His advice was: “Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, 'This is the real me,' and when you have found that attitude, follow it.” Organisations that encourage autonomy and provide opportunities for self-directed work align with James’ ideas on cultivating willpower and individual agency.

The Power of Positive Habits

James' exploration of habits predates Covey’s ‘7 habits of highly successful people’ by almost a century and sheds light on the importance of routines and their impact on workplace performance. As he said: "It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome. Establishing positive habits can enhance efficiency and work quality, and encouraging employees to build routines that support well-being, work-life balance, and continuous learning can lead to sustained improvements in both individual and team performance. As James put it: "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

Communication and Collaboration

James' work on the stream of consciousness and the complexity of human interactions offers insights into communication and collaboration. Recognising the diversity of perspectives and promoting open dialogue contributes to improved teamwork and innovation. James had an interesting way of encapsulating this: “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.” Encouraging employees to express their thoughts and feelings fosters a workplace culture of psychological safety, where creative ideas and constructive feedback can flourish.

Resilience and Adaptability

The modern workplace is characterised by rapid changes and uncertainty. James' philosophy emphasises the importance of adaptation but also resilience. Encouraging employees to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and learning aligns with his pragmatic approach. Cultivating a mindset that values adaptability over rigidity enables organisations, and individuals, to weather uncertainties and remain competitive. This predates the work of Angela Duckworth in her excellent book, ‘Grit: the power of passion and perseverance,’ with James’ view that, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Mindfulness and Well-being

James' explorations of consciousness and introspection intersect with the growing emphasis on mindfulness and well-being in the workplace, as he suggested: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,” pushing it back to the individual. Promoting practices that encourage employees to be present, manage stress, and foster emotional intelligence contributes to a healthier and more productive work environment. Recognising the connection between mental well-being and overall job performance aligns with James’ holistic view of human functioning. But ever the pragmatist, James was not about ‘mere ideas,’ "Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice."

We can see how incorporating William James' insights into our modern workplace requires a commitment to valuing human experiences, promoting growth, and fostering collaboration. By embracing the principles of pragmatism, psychological understanding, and holistic well-being, organisations can create environments where employees thrive, innovate, and contribute meaningfully to their collective goals. As we all attempt to navigate the complexities and changes in the 21st century workplace, I think the wisdom of William James can guide us toward a more productive, fulfilling, and harmonious professional journey.

These two works provide a super insight into his thoughts and, more importantly, how to practically apply them today:

William James: ‘Pragmatism - and other writings

William James: ‘Be not afraid of life


Houghton Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons