Stop Making Sense

Have you ever been stymied by logic that you know must be flawed but it successfully keeps the status quo in place? By getting to the hidden beliefs behind that logic, we can begin to make a difference.

Here are two true stories that can help demonstrate this. Consider the following:

Story #1

Once upon a time there was a social services agency in a famous city. This city was very proud of its image but, despite its image and beloved status, it had – and has – a very real Skid Row area. The agency served the Skid Row population, and it was located in a down and dirty neighborhood that was, among other things, strewn with litter.

One day, someone noticed that there were no trash receptacles on the street in this neighborhood. A delegation from the agency was sent to the city to ask that garbage cans be installed on street corners in the neighborhood.

The city, in its infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we put out garbage cans, people will just put garbage in them.”

? ? ?

Story #2

Once upon a time, there was a large company that prided itself on its quality customer service and the strength of its customer relationships. This company, despite its image, did occasionally have unhappy customers. Those customers occasionally reached out to the company have their complaints addressed.

The company had a toll-free number specifically for complaint calls, but that number was unpublished. It wasn’t in any of the company’s printed materials, nor was it on the company’s website. Because it was difficult to find, it was not unusual for otherwise calm and reasonable people with reasonable concerns to be frustrated and even furious by the time they got to someone who could address their issue.

It was proposed to The Powers That Be that the “hotline” number and email address should be made available on the company’s website.

The Powers That Be, in their infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we publish that number, people will call.”

? ? ?

What the…?

Those two scenarios are head-scratchers – each seems like a simple, common-sense solution that is illogically rejected.

Yet, the reasoning behind each rejection has a certain logic to it. On the surface, at least, it is about resources.

If the city had strategically placed trash receptacles around the neighborhood, it would have had to spend money to not only purchase the trash cans but also provide pick-up service – an additional labor expense. That wasn’t in the budget.

If the company had published its toll-free number and customer service email address, it might have had to hire another person to handle the increased volume of calls. That wasn’t in the budget, whereas the hidden costs of people routing calls was spread across various budgets.

In both cases, the seemingly simple logic trumps any arguments to the contrary. And so the status quo is maintained. Such improvements rarely make it into the budget for next year, however. Why? Because of the unexamined beliefs that surround them.

It is these beliefs that provide the structural support for the tunnel vision that keeps the status quo in place. What might those beliefs be?

  • This is Eden! We don’t have garbage here. (Denial.)
  • People who litter are moral degenerates who create their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems have to live with the consequences.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from rats, from disease, from bad publicity).

So let’s look at the possible belief system for our second scenario:

  • We don’t have complaints; our customers love us. (Denial.)
  • People who complain are crackpots who have created their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems deserve what they get.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from lawsuits, from bad publicity).

There is a certain logic to this belief system, even if that logic is flawed. But one thing I remember from my first college philosophy course was this: If one premise in an argument is flawed, then the conclusion cannot be true. In the scenarios above, the first premise is certainly not true, and the second premise is, at the very least, debatable.

But here’s an important consideration: I can speculate all day long, but if I don’t get verification of those beliefs, then I am only acting on my own beliefs and not on sound and current data. It is essential to respectfully investigate the real beliefs that underlie a system or decision or I may also be operating on flawed logic.

Stop Making Sense

Only if one looks for and examines the underlying belief system that supports a decision can one begin to understand why the situation never changes. Change will always be resisted until the underlying beliefs are addressed.

So, what to do? When faced with such logic and belief systems, there are three primary options:

  • Accept the situation as it is and collude with the system.
  • Accept the situation only long enough to leave.
  • Pay attention to the underlying beliefs and act accordingly. This option has two sub-options:
    • Keep a low profile, do not rock the boat, but handle individual situations according to a different belief system and make a difference for individuals. This is the path of Corrective Actions.
    • Hold those beliefs up and expose them to the light of day. Sunlight is, after all, the best disinfectant. This is the path of Root Cause Analysis and Preventive Actions.

The last option takes energy and it can make you unpopular if not done with Patience, Persistence and, most importantly, Compassion.

Patience, Persistence and Compassion

The patience, persistence and compassion are very important: We must remember that the people who buy into these belief systems aren’t trying to be difficult, and they aren’t trying to hurt others. It would be easy to say they are dumb, or bigoted, or lazy. But often they are really trying to do a good job – to protect the organization, to save money, to be efficient. Those positive intentions should be honored. But they cannot be accepted at face value without colluding with the system.

Effective Organization Development can help. OD is about improving human systems, which is best done by strengthening the human processes through which people get their work done. (Check out this Definition of OD at the Center for Human Systems for more about that.) These human processes are driven by beliefs that often are not expressly stated, so part of the work of the effective OD practitioner (and of anyone who is trying to improve human systems) is to uncover the beliefs that drive the human processes. In other words, negative, dysfunctional beliefs must be uncovered so that the human processes can truly be improved.

The $64,000 Question

Here is my question for you: How do you shine sunlight on underlying beliefs without everyone involved getting sunburned?

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