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Election day ponderings

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I was talking politics with an acquaintance. Explaining his positions on the issues he told me he’s a social liberal but fiscal conservative.

Not uncommon these days. But it occurred to me that while accurate, his self-description had nothing to do with liberal or conservative political philosophy, just liberal and conservative affinities.

What’s this have to do with the world of business?

There is a connection, and we’ll get to it. But with the impending election the poor quality of political discourse in this country is once again on my mind, and this sort of self-indulgent piece is the price you occasionally pay for getting KJR for free.

Let’s get to it.

“Social liberal” should mean you base your positions on social issues on liberal political philosophy. What it does mean is, you hold positions commonly associated with the Democratic party.

Likewise fiscal conservatism, which means holding positions about financial policy commonly associated with the GOP.

The two major political parties and commentariat have convinced most of us that liberalism and conservatism are opposing political philosophies — poles on a spectrum. This is bunk.

Liberalism is more or less an extension of John Rawls’ principle that a fair society is one you’d design if you didn’t know where you’d be born into it.

Conservatism is, more or less, adherence to the principle that the government is the solution only to problems that can’t be decently solved without its intervention.

Do those strike you as opposites — poles on a continuum? To me they’re entirely compatible and complementary. Neither excludes the other. If recognized as complementary principles, different people would still reach different conclusions when applying them, but with a lot less acrimony.

Because our political dialog is really all about affinity — choosing which side you’re on — a Republican candidate for office would be rejected for agreeing that you can’t fix potholes and bridges without spending tax dollars to do it. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates have to at least pretend that anything less than perfect fairness is entirely unacceptable.

And, both parties subject us to a form of political advertising best described as “here’s why the other candidate is awful.”

Imagine applying this art form to selling cars. General Motors’ ads would grimly describe the Toyotas that accelerated uncontrollably. Toyota would retaliate with Thunder Road ads — photos of the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets — excoriating GM for being so greedy it wouldn’t install safe ignition switches.

Affinity-driven political philosophy drives polarization. Affinity means understanding what makes you a member of the club. You have to learn and follow its rules.

What’s this have to do with the world of business?

As promised, there is a connection, and not a particularly subtle one, either (and thanks for indulging me): When it’s election-year politics we call it polarization. When it’s politics in business we call it organizational silos.

But while the root causes of political polarization and organizational siloes are different, their sustaining strategies and tactics are quite similar, and if you don’t think so, try defending the bureaucrats in HR to your colleagues in a badly siloed company.

It just isn’t done, and if you’re on the other side of the fence try defending the propeller heads in IT who are always chasing the latest shiny ball; the bean counters in accounting who understand the price of everything and the value of nothing; the pointy-haired bosses who, walking into the Clue Store with a plutonium American Express card would leave empty handed …

Get the picture?

Recently I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary regarding what psychologists call confirmation bias — the tendency to accept without question any and all inputs that support a position you’ve already taken while ignoring or nit-picking to death anything calling it into question. The gist of these articles is that we might as well give up on forming rational opinions, because we can’t. Confirmation bias will always prevent it, and we won’t even know that’s what’s going on in our heads.

I’m less convinced of the hopelessness of it all, largely because, over time, we’ve accumulated pretty good evidence that science works (like, the device you’re reading this on depends on it).

How do scientists … good scientists, at least … avoid confirmation bias? The good ones avoid it by not wanting to prove they’re right. They aren’t even motivated by the need to be right.

What they want is to understand how something works. Confirmation bias doesn’t ever enter the picture.

Try it. Start with HR — the discipline, not the department. You might be surprised, not just at what you learn, but at how much there is to learn.

Comments (13)

  • Typo Alert! “prove their right”
    What, and leave their left undefended?!?

    • Well, you do know that one definition of a “liberal” is, “people who won’t take their own side in an argument.”

      Anyway, thanks for the alert. I fixed the typo on line. Not much I can do about the emailed copies, though.

  • Dear Bob,

    Thanks for daringly stepping outside the narrow boundaries of business topics and straying into the minefield of politics in the course of your argument! I liked your article a good deal.

  • Bob, this is one of your best columns ever, and I’ve been a reader for a very long time. As a former city councilman, I can tell you that most issues don’t fit into the R or D category at all. Liberal and conservative are likewise generally meaningless. I’m going to share your article far and wide (okay, I’ll link to it on Facebook at least).

  • This is not something the party hardliners will like public the take to heart. Now how do we get this before the electorate before the next election?

    • Uh … forward it to everyone you know to help me in my going-viral ambitions? Write Jon Stewart to get me on the Daily Show? Otherwise cater to my outsized need for attention and admiration?

      Or, probably better all the way around, share the thinking with your friends and encourage them to do the same. This isn’t something that gets across in a sound bite.

  • Great write up for the occasion!

    If you have any deeper interests in political philosophy and american history, pick up “When I was a child I read books” by Marylin Robinson – short book with some great insights.

    Keep up the great work!

  • I will restrain my urge to debate you about the meanings of liberal and conservative (they are about as vague and meaningless these days as “good” and “bad” 🙂 and even about which is which as they apply to the Democratic party and the Republican (both of which have changed dramatically over the years, assuming you can even pin them down at this point in time) because I agree with all your remarks about affinity being the key here, whether it is politics or organizational silos.

    Why I comment is that your last line confused me, or rather I hope that you will expand upon it, perhaps in future articles. When you say, “Start with HR” how to do you mean for your audience to proceed? Especially as you add, “the discipline, not the department” – so you are not referring to silos as they may occur in the reader’s organization. Do you mean that affinity may extend outside the organization to the wider world – IT folks may feel more affinity to IT departments in other organizations than they do to the rest of their own organization? I can understand that.

    But I am still not sure how you propose IT people (for example) go about understanding other disciplines, HR or marketing or sales or production, etc., and what priority that should take among all their other tasks.

    Is that an important task if you recognize that silo-ing is a problem in your own org? Then should you really focus on the discipline itself or the actual people in your org?

    Or is it that understanding, say, HR, useful for people in IT in general – like HR discipline principles have application within the IT discipline?

    Or is it that any employee who aspires to excellence should have a well-rounded understanding of all the various disciplines that make up an organization?

    • My attempted point was, when people complain about the bureaucrats in HR, they’re thinking in terms of affinities. Silos, in corporate terms. But the result spills over to the discipline, because if you think of HR as a bureaucracy you aren’t likely to give any credit to the body of knowledge behind it.

      So my advice … based on an earlier paragraph where I used HR as an example among many of how silo thinking happens … was to learn about HR, and specifically to learn about the discipline, unaffected by any biases one might have about the organization.

      Hope that’s more clear.

  • We have a terminology problem. The opposites are Liberal and Authoritarian. One favors the rights of the individual and the other favors the rights of the group or of society. Guess which is which?

    Dems tend toward authority on economic issues and tend toward liberalism on social issues.

    Repubs tend toward authority on social and are actually liberal in this classic sense on economic issues.

    Think of a 2×2 grid with social and economic issues on one side and liberal and authoritarian (conservative in the classic definition) on the top axis. Dems are in two corners and repub in the other two. Rand Paul is in two cells stacked under liberal and if you look for a true authoritarian its harder to find a real world example but maybe Pat Buchanan.

    On military or privacy, its hard to say if that is social or economic hence some of the weird alliances for issues like this

    Like many things in IT, terminology can sometime be the main issue.

    • Interesting point. Not sure I’d agree this is a matter of core philosophy, but I have a hard time arguing with you regarding the tendencies.

  • Excellent article and spot on. I keep wondering when our leaders (both sides) will get around to managing the business of the moving our country forward rather than consuming apalling amounts of money calling each other irresponsible, idiotic, anti-American hatemongers.

    Hopefully, these concepts will be incorporated into the documents that will help kickstart the Common Sense Party…someday.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great work!

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