Remember the Y2K crisis? Most IT professionals do. You probably recall long, hard hours, sweating the details to make sure your company’s systems kept working. The Y2K crisis might be the best example in history of what David Brin calls “self-preventing prophesy.”
Much of the rest of the population has fallen for what became typical commentary starting around 8:39am, January 2, 2000. Instead of thanking the tens of thousands of hard-working programmers who saved their companies from bankruptcy, and the world’s economy from chaos, a swarm of second-guessers decided we computer geeks had all bilked our employers with a trumped up, phony scare, which was our fault in the first place for designing the old systems so poorly.
This is intellectual relativism — the philosophy that all ideas are equally valid so long as enough people accept them — at its most egregious. All of the evidence is on one side of the issue, and it doesn’t matter. Given a choice between evidence and what someone wants to believe, evidence doesn’t stand a chance, especially when the belief is that someone else is to blame for something. Propagandists exploit this all-too-human tendency — to feel better about myself by feeling worse about someone else — all the time. It’s what makes their standard rhetorical fare — the ridiculing and demonizing of some identifiable group — so effective. If you’re wondering how intellectual relativism takes root, look no further. Frequently, it starts with the desire to blame.
Last week’s column explored the gold standard for avoiding intellectual relativism — the systems, processes and mental habits scientists have developed over the past few hundred years to assure the integrity of published evidence. The place to start reducing intellectual relativism in your organization is one of those mental habits. Call it a culture of honest inquiry — a bias toward making decisions based on evidence and logic rather than starting with personal preferences. Or as Jim Collins put it in Good to Great, “confronting the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
Nationally, we’re losing our culture of honest inquiry. Corporately, too many executives and managers actively prevent it from ever forming.
Speaking of blame, one popular barrier to a culture of honest inquiry is the desire to hold people accountable. What this mostly achieves is rewarding everyone in the chain of command for forwarding only good news, sweeping everything else under the rug as long as is humanly possible.
It’s Hobson’s choice. Want to hold people accountable? Or do you want straight information, so you know if you should hold them accountable?
And anyway, holding individuals accountable is usually ManagementSpeak for finding someone to blame.
Another nasty mental habit that can prevent a culture of honest inquiry is my-team/your-team. My-team/your-team turns people into debaters, arguing for their side as persuasively as possible. When you’re on a team you want your side to win, rather than wanting to achieve the best result. People being what they are, of course, they equate being right with being on the right side — their team.
Note an important distinction. My-team/your-team results in debating … arguing. A culture of honest inquiry results in discussion. The difference: Arguing is about winning. Discussing is about collaboratively solving a problem.
My-team/your-team is easy to spot. It usually takes the form of ad hominem argument, is aimed at another workgroup in the company, and demonizes, diminishes, or marginalizes them. So if you hear, “What do you expect from those bean-counters?” or “They’re all clueless Pointy-Haired Bosses,” or “They’re propeller-heads — only interested in technology for technology’s sake,” it’s a safe bet Accounting, IT, and various executives aren’t asking each other, “What is it about our processes and systems that allowed this to happen?” They’re too busy … altogether now … blaming each other.
People will identify themselves as part of a group. It’s a natural tendency and you aren’t going to stop it. What you can do is encourage a change in how they define the group. So if you hear my-team/your-team conversations in your organization, confront the arguers. Point out the window, name your biggest competitor, and say, “Out there, right now, they want our customers. They’re the competition. You, me, and all those folks you’re busy insulting are on the same side. So instead of blaming them for a problem we all share, figure out how to work with them to solve it instead.”
Which gets to a sign I’ve wanted to place on the wall in a number of companies I’ve seen over the years: “We have a blame-oriented culture and it’s Your Fault!”