Where intellectual relativism comes from

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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?

Pick one.

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!”

Comments (7)

  • WHAT a coincidence! Last week’s MacGuyver saved the world from an old Russian nuclear bomb because (drum roll) it hadn’t been updated for Y2K! So with seconds to spare, he reset the clock/calendar.
    AND this month is the theatrical release of Denial, about a court case over libel for Deborah Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust (which I’m now reading) which lays out in excruciating detail how the Holocaust deniers ignored, distorted or flat-out made up ‘facts’ or came to absurd conclusions (e.g. the fact that Jews were alive after WWI showed that the Nazis didn’t exterminate them, ergo no Holocaust)

  • I remember this column. It was spot on then as now. Thanks for resurrecting it. I’m about to implement some major structural changes in the IT organization and it’s helpful to be reminded to prevent my-team/your-team pitfalls.

    And just for fun, I remember the intensity of Y2K. “Y2K! Y2K!” I couldn’t help thinking: Y2K? Y not 2K?

  • Spot on as usual, Bob. While I can see that an inspired (and rare) leader can nurture a culture of honest inquiry in a company or organization, politically it seems that this would require the replacement of the party system. I’d swear that the job descriptions for the party leaders must start with “get into power and hold on to it by whatever means necessary”, with “governing the country and solving national problems” a very distant second. Any suggestions?

    • Well, sorta, but I’m not the person to make it happen. I’m thinking of Grover Norquist’s success in getting Republican candidates to sign a no tax increase pledge.

      Couldn’t some clever political organizer start pressuring politicians to sign a Fact Check pledge?

  • Honest expectations also. The people who complain about bureaucracy often want new rules implemented without acknowledging how _any_ rule requires bureaucracy. It is unavoidable organizational friction. (Go ahead and explain how to enforce a new rule without gathering new information and analyzing it.)

  • I agree with everything you said, except for calling the phenomenon “intellectual relativism”. Philosophical relativism is the view that there are no absolute truths, which I generally agree with. But with respect to facts, it just means that facts can only exist in a particular context.

    So, a person’s emotion is fact of their experience. Or, a person’s belief or disbelief in the existence of God is a fact, in a discussion about beliefs. But when a belief or emotion is used as verifiable fact in a context that requires verifiable facts, then I think we’re talking sophistry or delusion of some degree.

    As I see it, a minority of the population will use the techniques of sophistry or delusion to change the context of the discussion and the topic under discussion to maintain their experience of “comfort”, regardless of its dysfunctional consequences to the organization or themselves. There is no valid philosophical basis for this behavior.

    Just because life experience is relative doesn’t mean that absolute truth and valid facts don’t exist in their relevant contexts. Since no individual in an organization can personally understand all the contexts needed for the organization to achieve its goals, it seems to me that trust of others, based on verifiable facts, is the only way a business can remain viable.

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