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An Obstacle to Critical Thinking Within Organizations: The Covert Struggle for Power

To what extent are organizations and institutions capable of making a commitment to critical thinking? For one, every organization, every institutional structure, consists not only of a multiplicity of individuals, but a hierarchy of power among those individuals. No matter how noble the ultimate goals of an organization are, there is often a struggle for power beneath the surface. In this struggle, the thinking motivating the behavior of individuals may be highly complex as well as obscure. Personal strategies in use may be tacit, that is, not apparent even to those who are using them. Some strategies in the struggle for power are particularly deceptive.

For example, in a best selling book The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene (1998) puts into blatant language, 48 strategies that he claims are effectively used by those who seek and gain power. A short sampling of them is revealing:

  • "Never outshine the Master."

  • "Never put too much trust in Friends; learn how to use enemies."

  • "Conceal your intentions."

  • "Always say less than necessary."

  • "Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit."

  • "Make other people come to you—use bait if necessary."

  • "Learn to keep people dependent on you."

  • "Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim."

  • "When asking for help, appeal to people's self-interest?"

  • "Pose as a friend, work as a spy."

  • "Crush your enemy totally." (pp. ix–xi)

Greene goes on to argue for a private, though deliberate, commitment to deviousness: "In the world today it is dangerous to seem too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves. We have to seem fair and decent. So we need to be subtle—congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious Everything must appear civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. But if we play by those rules too strictly, if we take them too literally, we are crushed by those around us who are not so foolish." (p. xvii)

He continues: "Power requires the ability to play with appearances. To this end you must learn to wear many masks and keep a bag full of deceptive tricks Deception is a developed art of civilization and the most potent weapon in the game of power. You cannot succeed at deception unless you take a somewhat distanced approach to yourself—unless you can be many different people, wearing the mask that the day and the moment require Playing with appearances and mastering arts of deception are among the aesthetic pleasures of life. They are also key components in the acquisition of power." (pp. xx–xxi)

It is our considered view that most of the strategies that Greene recommends are ethically unjustifiable except in rare circumstances and for compelling reasons. We are also dubious as to the extent to which most persons could explicitly adopt those strategies without suffering pangs of conscience. Nevertheless, we recognize that some individuals—those we have called "selfish" or "sophistic" critical thinkers—do act in ways that come close to embodying the kinds of strategies that Greene recommends.

Test the Idea The Game of Power

To what extent do you agree with Robert Greene's claim "?all of us hunger for power, and almost all of our actions are aimed at it??" (xix) Think through your view of this idea as well as his view of the implications it has (e.g., that, as a result, it makes sense to engage in this struggle for power aggressively and without pangs of conscience).

We recognize that all humans engage in self-deception and manipulation. There are contradictions and inconsistencies in the behavior of all humans. Therefore, it is wise to develop the ability to detect deviousness and cunning in human behavior. This requires that we learn the art of interpreting intentions not from explicit statements and "public" behavior alone, but from decisions and acts that typically escape notice. We must become students of the human ego and its machinations. We must become keenly aware of the fact that much human motivation is below the level of consciousness. Deciphering the motivations that underlie human behavior and the character of individuals is a challenging activity, yet one in which we must all develop skills if we want to protect ourselves in the real world of manipulation, power struggles, and vested interest.

Within all organizational or institutional structures, the thinking of some is treated as having more force, more authority, than that of others. High position in a hierarchy naturally leads others to yield. What is more, there is an incentive in most stratified groups for those with superior position to hold the view that their thinking is superior to those below them. To some extent this is natural, for if I am superior to you in authority and power and yet admit that your thinking is better than mine, I raise the question as to whether you should have more authority and I less. The more mistakes in thinking I admit to, the less credibility I usually have.

Test the Idea The Game of Power Once More

Do you see the difference between the view we are expressing about power and that of Greene, or do you think that, when all is said and done, both are more or less the same? (We hold, for example, that you can become effective in protecting yourself in the game of power without adopting unethical strategies in the process. We do not believe that because your opponents are unethical in their attempts to defeat you that you must adopt unethical strategies simply to protect yourself). This, of course, is a dispute very much alive in the real world. For example, it is argued in agencies like the CIA which have used such strategies as assassination and the overthrow of foreign governments (with the plea that these are the lessor evils in the case).

The main point is this: We must learn to take into account the power and position of persons with whom we deal in corporate and other organizational structures. We must be cautious in sharing our private thoughts, especially those that might offend those in power. If our views diverge in any way from the received views, it is prudent to be cautious lest our views be perceived as a personal threat to those in power

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