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Assessing Irrational Thinking in Organizational Life

We all participate in life in a multi-dimensional way. We play many roles. We become involved in many groups, organizations, and institutions. For the most part, we act in settings in which critical thinking is not a basic value on the part of others. Often, we are dealing with people who are egocentric or irrational in various dimensions of their lives. Often, we are dealing with people who are striving for more power and are willing to sacrifice basic values to their short-term vested interest. Often, we are dealing with people who are easily threatened by thinking that differs from their own or with bureaucracies enveloped in red tape and disfunctional regulations or with people who are significantly self-deceived. Sometimes we are dealing with people who use critical thinking skills to obscure rather than reveal the truth and are principally focused on their own selfish advantage. Sometimes we may find ourselves working within an industry that has a negative effect on the quality of life in the community—e.g., the tobacco industry.

Nevertheless, it is in our long-term interest to develop as thinkers, to apply our best thinking in our lives, and to become lifelong learners. It is in all our interests that critical thinking becomes part of the culture of the organizational structures in society. The question is: "how can we use our thinking to best advantage in settings that often do not reward the best thinking and may at times punish it?"

There is no simple answer to this question. Becoming skilled in analyzing and assessing our personal circumstances in organizational structures takes insight and practice. We must ask the right questions, but we must also discover the essential facts. In the end, our judgments will still often be no more than probabilities. Let us look at some hypothetical cases and consider some elementary thinking about the logic of the decisions they offer. The thinking we propose is merely illustrative. We do not consider it definitive. A great deal would depend on the precise facts of the situation. We present our analysis as merely plausible and reasonable (as far as it goes). You might disagree with us in one or more case. Your analysis might be better than ours—or at least a plausible alternative.

Case # 1: An American Auto Maker Executive or Manager during the 1970s or '80s

You recognize that your company (and other American companies) is losing market share to Japanese automobile manufacturers. This trend is not denied by the company, but is explained as a product of the "fact" that Japanese workers work harder and more efficiently than American workers (with their union protections). Within the received view of management, the solution to the problem is that Japanese imports should be restricted since the competition is "unfair." It seems to you that emerging data gathered from auto plants operated by Japanese companies in America (using American labor) support the conclusion that the problem is not that of American worker laziness but rather of poor (American) management. You recognize that your view will not be well received by upper management and that your future with the company may be jeopardized by pressing this viewpoint. What are your options?

Analysis of Case # 1: The options in a case like this will vary in accordance with the specific facts in the situation and must be determined in context. Some facts may be hard to obtain. For example, it is often difficult to predict what individuals may do in circumstances in which you have not observed them. What is more, how individuals respond is dependent on how they interpret the situation. How they interpret the situation, in turn, depends in part on how the situation is presented to them and what their interests are. You may not be well positioned to make accurate predictions regarding the probable response of a number of people.

Clearly, your overall choice is to stay or go. If you stay, you must decide whether to try to influence present company policy or simply do your best within it. If you decide to influence company policy you must decide how to present your views in the least challenging way, and to whom and under what circumstances. If you decide to go, you must decide your timing and your transition to another job situation. As part of this thinking, you should make sure you are not simply trading one inflexible environment for another.

In addition, your values and needs are crucial. To what extent is it important to you to feel that you are part of a thriving concern? To what extent will you be frustrated if you suppress your actual views and work in a setting in which views that you consider inaccurate are being used as a basis for company decision-making? To what extent can you derive satisfaction simply by doing your job to the best of your ability within the context of decisions you cannot control? To what extent can you indirectly and behind the scenes encourage the company to move in the direction that you consider is important? What are your long-term hopes and plans? What would you like to be doing in five years? In ten years? What does all of this add-up to in your mind?

Case # 2: A Professor Recognizing the Need for Academic Reform

You are a professor with tenure in an academic department at a State University. You observe a number of problems that are not being addressed by the university. You notice that professors are largely assessed in terms of their ability to get along with the other professors in their department, on the one hand, and by their popularity with students, on the other—rather than by their professional standing and actual teaching ability. You recognize that some professors who are poor teachers and questionable scholars are promoted. You recognize that some professors who are excellent teachers and scholars are released. In addition, you discover that many graduating seniors lack fundamental reading, writing, and thinking skills. You recognize also that it is politically dangerous to suggest to faculty committees that there are serious problems of instruction and learning at the university. You also come to recognize, through informal conversations, that the administration is not likely to adopt any policy that will bring it into serious conflict with the faculty.

Analysis of Case # 2. The options in a case of this kind, like case # 1, varies in accordance with the specific facts in the situation and must be determined in context. As in case # 1, some of those facts may be hard to come by. There is always the problem of predicting what particular individuals may do in circumstances in which you have not yet observed them. In this case, the problem is largely political rather than academic. The political problem is one of gaining sufficient support for reform among those who have the power to facilitate it. Clearly, those most threatened by reform will organize to defend their interests, as soon as they see those interests threatened. The political issue becomes one of determining how to motivate those open-minded enough to see the need for reform—while minimally threatening those likely to oppose it. Of course, like most organizational political problems, much of the work must be done behind the scenes rather than openly. Few will openly oppose the idea of more effective assessment of professors or measures designed to produce more effective instruction. Yet within a large organization there are always many ways for those whose interest is in perpetuating the status quo to undermine reform efforts.

One option is to take the long view and work quietly behind the scenes over a number of years. Another option is to concentrate one's efforts on improving one's own scholarship and instruction, ignoring the problems requiring action on the part of others. A third is to become an agent for change in a larger arena, seeking to document problems in a more global way, while studiously avoiding documenting "local" problems. In this latter case, one might write articles or books on the general problems facing universities. A fourth option is to leave academia for industry.

As always, your personal values, preferences, and needs are very important. In which option are you likely to be doing the sorts of things that motivate and fulfil you? Some people seem to thrive in a political environment, others find it distasteful and unrewarding. Some seem able to work well within a system that has significant problems. Others find it difficult to "ignore" or set aside systemic problems while functioning within a system.

Case # 3: Working in a Setting in which There is Significant Personal Conflict

You are working in a setting in which there is a great deal of personal conflict. You find yourself suffering from stress even though you are not a party to the conflict. Each side in the conflict attempts to draw you in on their side.

Analysis of Case # 3. Here are some of the crucial questions: To what extent is the conflict a matter of conflicting personalities or conflicting styles? To what extent are there important issues at the root of the personal conflict? How would you assess the rationality of the conflicting sides? To what extent does the conflict relate to the structure of power and to questions of power? What are the implications of one or the other side winning the struggle? What are the implications for the individuals? What are the implications for the organization? To what extent can you change your own thinking—the thinking that is leading you to feel stress? To what extent can you focus inward on your immediate job and escape involvement in the conflict? Ideally, what is the best way to resolve the conflict? What are the chances of the "best way" being achieved? Is there anything you can do to facilitate resolution of the conflict?

Case # 4: Working for an Unreasonable Boss

You are working in a setting in which the main person you must answer to is an irrational person, one given to extreme mood swings and to blaming others for his own deficiencies. Though irrational much of the time, he sees himself as a reasonable person who does not suffer fools gladly.

Analysis of Case # 4. Since the person you are working for is significantly irrational, appeal to his reason will be ineffective. Secondly, since he has significantly more power than you have, you have no choice but to pander to his ego and thereby avoid his wrath or to seek other employment or both. If you make the mistake of attempting to show him that he is being irrational, you will regret it, for he will find a way to conceptualize your behavior in a negative way and seek ways to punish you for "misrepresenting" him.

Case # 5: An Unreasonable Employee (with an underdog ego)

You are supervising an employee with an "underdog" ego. He regularly blames himself for mistakes he makes, but does not make any serious improvement. He is always willing to negate himself, but does not seem to be able to make progress. He continually promises to do better, but does not.

Analysis of Case # 5. Since the person working for you has an inferiority complex and lacks insight into his own make-up, appeals to his reason will be ineffective. The best solution will probably be to release him and try to hire a more rational person in his place. If you decide to work with him, you must set a specific time-line with specific expected improvements. You must follow-through on that timeline and on the consequences you establish in the event he does not improve. It is very unlikely that a person who is used to criticize himself as a substitute for changing himself will escape the pattern by himself (unless, in his more rational moments, he recognizes the pattern and is strongly motivated to change).

Case # 6: An Unreasonable Employee (with a dominating ego)

You are supervising an employee with a "top dog" ego who is also a skilled weak-sense critical thinker. She regularly finds ways to blame others for her deficiencies. She has an explanation for every mistake. The problem almost always turns out—when she does not blame it on others—to be a result of her having too little resources or out of date equipment or other circumstances beyond her control. She is very creative in evading personal responsibility for any problem or mistake.

Analysis of Case # 6 . Since the person working for you has a superiority complex and lacks insight into her own make-up, appeals to reason will be ineffective. The best solution will probably be to release her and try to hire a more rational person in her place. If you decide to work with her, you will have a great deal of difficulty because of her skills of rationalization. Since she already thinks of herself as performing at a high level and this conception is an important part of her self-identity, it will be very difficult to get her to take ownership of his deficiencies.

Case #7: A College President Uses College Funds to Support a Project at His Sister's Request

You are an administrator on a college campus reporting to the president. A local public school submits a request to the college for textbook covers. The school asks that the college produce paper covers with the college's logo and information about what the college offers printed on back. In this way, the college is able to market its programs while also providing the school with the covers it needs. As the Vice President of Community Relations, this request comes to your office. At first glance the request seems reasonable. But as you inquire further into the request you find that the person submitting it is the sister of your college president. When you bring the situation to the president for discussion, he says that he knew his sister would be submitting it. Furthermore he says that, since the college will be able to advertise its programs in a relatively inexpensive way by granting the request, he supports it. You mention your concern that it might seem to others that the real reason why the request was granted is because the president is motivated to help a family member. You also tell the president that should other schools make similar requests you will be hard-pressed not to grant them given the fact that you will be doing it for this one school. You add that the college cannot afford to do this for all schools in the large city within which you live. The president says not to worry, that it is unlikely that any other school will make such a request. He also says that he is not granting the request because his sister made it, rather that he thinks it is a good way of marketing the college's programs. He tells you not to get so worked up about things.

Analysis of Case #7: One option is simply to accept the president's reasoning. Because the book covers are going to provide information about the programs offered by the college, you can justify using money from the marketing budget to fund the project. On the other hand, it seems clear that the real reason behind the plan is to use college funds to help the president's sister. Reasoning further with the president seems futile since it seems clear that he is committed to his position. Moreover you know from your past interactions with him that when he has a vested interest in a project he will become disgruntled if you try to convince him that he should consider alternative ways of looking at the situation.

The question you must answer is whether it is in your best interest and in keeping with your values to proceed with the request. You will need to decide whether you are able, in good conscience, to work within the conditions set by the president and the current power structure. If you leave the college and move to a new college, will you likely find yourself in a similar situation? Since you understand how the "old boy network" operates, could you even get a job at another college or, through his connections, might the president be able to effectively block other opportunities you might have for employment? Do you have other viable career possibilities?

If you decide to tell the president you cannot in clear conscience support the project, what would the likely implications be? Would he find opportunities to "punish" you? Might he, for example, refuse to give you an annual pay increase? Might he see that you do not receive further promotions? Might he find another position for you on campus, one with less responsibility and power so that you cause him fewer problems?

Test the Idea Analyzing Situations

Generate your own case for analysis. First, describe a problematic situation at work. Then, analyze the situation. What are your options for action?

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