Saturday 22 October 2016

Obituaries: Professor John Hunt

Expert in behavioural science who said that businesses should recognise the importance of emotion

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

Model for innovation: Professor John Hunt
Model for innovation: Professor John Hunt

Professor John Hunt, who has died aged 78, was Plowden Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School (LBS), where he ran an MBA programme and advised leading employers, including Heineken, the British civil service and Citibank.

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The author of some 50 academic papers and several books, Hunt, an expert in behavioural science, argued that the greatest mistake a business can make is to make management a science and treat employees as cogs in a bureaucratic machine: "We have relied far too much on structure, and not enough on gut feel," he argued in 1989. "The scientific rationalist approach has produced a very bureaucratic and regulated society, but what makes [people] interesting is not just the regulation but the irrational, the emotional and creative side... The belief was that managers could produce a rational scientific system, whereas in fact we all know it is about emotion, about love and hate."

A dapper figure with a twinkle in his eye, Hunt placed the emphasis on creating a working environment which provides individual job satisfaction and gives employees freedom to innovate. He was one of the first to identify the phenomenon of the "mid-career crisis" and devised the Work Interest Schedule, one of the first "360 degree" feedback surveys, designed to establish the things that give employees a sense of motivation. He also did important work on mergers and acquisitions, arguing that the most successful are those which are not contested: "A takeover is fundamentally and essentially a period of anxiety and uncertainty. When people's jobs are felt to be at risk, self-interest takes over. ''

Some of his most interesting work related to the role of national identity in corporate culture. His research showed that the British, for example, tend to be more individualistic than their European counterparts, a characteristic which perhaps explains why they seem to be better at inventing things and establishing businesses than running them. Britons tend not to yearn for the power that comes with running very large companies; instead, they reject the bureaucracy that such organisations produce.

International organisations that are set up expressly to avoid strong national character, such as the European Commission or UN agencies, however, experience problems precisely because there is no one dominant culture. Also, because they are directed by politicians who have no political capital to gain from administration, reform always gets pushed to the bottom of the pile.

"International bodies rarely have a power base of their own," he observed. "To justify themselves, highly paid, often initially idealistic staff spend their time developing yet more ideas that can't be implemented. The result is the worst of all worlds, there being nothing more cynical than a bunch of rich, demoralised ex-idealists."

The second of four children of parents who were both teachers, John Wallace Hunt was born at Cessnock, New South Wales, Australia, on September 5, 1937. After qualifying as a teacher at the University of Sydney he took up a teaching post at a private boys' school.

In the mid 1960s Hunt took a PhD in behavioural science at the University of New South Wales and became a lecturer there. In 1972 he was appointed to an assistant professorship at Macquarie University, Sydney, subsequently becoming a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. During a period of time in Crete he finished his first book, The Restless Organisation (1971), in which he argued that good management is about much more than market share, net profits and return on investment, but involves understanding that organisations are temporary social systems where the culture and good relationships between individuals are vital to success.

In 1977 he was appointed to visiting professorships at the LBS and the Centre d'Etudes Industrielle in Geneva. Three years later he was appointed to a permanent post at the LBS as Plowden Professor of Organisational Behaviour. For five years he was an advice columnist at the Financial Times, helping readers with their management dilemmas.

His other books include Managing People at Work (1979), which has sold more than 100,000 copies

He married, in 1964, Wendy Smith. She died in 2009 and he is survived by their son and two daughters. John Hunt died on October 2.

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