zaterdag 31 augustus 2013

Black Swan

In management and organization, like everywhere else, one encounters optimism and pessimism. The extreme pole on the optimistic side includes beliefs about the opportunity for personal development that is provided by professional work, about the thrill of perfect cooperation and about empowerment and democracy in organizations.

The extreme pole on the pessimistic side has a very cynical character. There prevails the idea that in organizations it is only about power and money and that a hypocritical facade of sweet talk and so-called people-oriented Human Resource Management is dressed up in front of it.

Of course between these two poles there are innumerable positions where optimism and pessimism are mixed with each other. Depending on what a person experiences in his work, the position he occupies in the spectre can change over time and even per day. Pessimism can turn into optimism and vice versa.

Now, what I think is that the shift from optimism to pessimism is more obvious than the reverse. Because it’s nice to start a job with a positive attitude and usually one starts that way. And then only a few bad experiences need to follow for expectations to dampen or to be turned into the negative. That’s the way one becomes ‘wiser’. The claim propagated by many managers that with them everything is all right can at some point fairly easily be pierced.

The other – that is: the pessimistic – claim is much harder to pierce. Perhaps because it pretends to be wiser, because it is based on life experience. And none of us wants pass for naive. Hence the popularity of the idea that everyone eventually is just bent on personal gain, that the struggle for life is the only constant in organizations, and that there is no escape from that awareness, unless you are willfully blind. This cynicism is much harder to fight, because it claims truth. It can not be easily adjusted in the positive direction.

This paradigm tends to reinforce itself because every incident where there is selfish action fits in. Different things are simply not perceived. Here happens what Popper calls verification: if the hypothesis for research reads “There are only white swans”, and you examine that by collecting evidence in favour of the hypothesis, you will find white swans indeed. Applied to our subject: if the proposition is “In organizations the law of the jungle is dominant”, and you're going to confirm that claim by seeking supporting evidence then you will indeed find proof of the dreariness of organizations.

But Popper says: that research method is not right, because by searching confirmation of the proposition you will find it, that is to say white swans and dreariness. Instead, you should look for what contradicts that proposition, thus a black swan. Because if you then don’t find anything, the proposition gains value.

The proposition of the white swans for most people has already been irreparably refuted by their perceiving a black swan. The statement “In organizations the law of the jungle is dominant” may, however, seem irrefutable as an iron regularity, if only because the dreariness prevents you from seeing anything else. Moreover, you run the risk of a reputation of unworldliness if you bring in something to the argument in.

Yet that proposition is, viewed from a Popperian scientific perspective, as weak as that of the white swans, because the right-of-the-fittest proposition has its black swans. If, inspired by the work of Levinas, you approach people in organizations asking if they ever feel ashamed about their organizational power they appear sometimes to say yes. A black swan. And if then you ask whether they therefore changed their behavior in some respect, sometimes they say yes once more. Another black swan.

donderdag 8 augustus 2013


Frankly, I do not get it, those outraged reactions from the Israeli government and other Jewish circles on the announcement by the EU of a boycott of products from the settlements. What I do not get particularly is the assertion that this boycot entails delegitimisation of Israel.

Delegitimization refers to statements by enemies of Israel who claim that the state of Israel has been founded on false grounds, thus has no right to exist and should actually disappear.

That you’re worried about that kind of statements, I get that. Here the raison d’être of one’s state is put into question, and you do not necessarily have to be Jewish to find that threatening. And also completely misplaced, because Israel is based on a decision of the United Nations and is therefore firmly established in international law as almost no other country.

But precisely this last observation makes those ‘deeply hurt’ sounds from Israel so incomprehensible. Because if you sincerely want to continue along in the international legal system you can not go shopping there and select your own favourites. You will have to play the game conform to the rules.

Fortunately, the rules are fairly nuanced: Israel’s legitimacy is not in question, but the occupation of the West Bank is illegal. The conclusions which are subsequently drawn on the basis of those principles are equally nuanced: boycott of Israeli products is not an issue, it is about products from the occupied territories.

By presenting boycott of the latter as an affront to Israel as a whole, Netanyahu turns it into an all-or-nothing game. This is dangerous: Israel therewith quits the legal arena and thus plays into the hands of the delegitimizators. It is no coincidence that the always somewhat anti-Semitic colored British academic circles choose for all: a total boycott of all Israeli academics from outside ánd inside the Green Line. And in the Dutch supermarket otherwise benevolent consumers may, to be sure, decide not to buy anything at all from Israel.

If you really want to prevent delegitimization you will have to comply with the legal system. Then you will constantly have to distinguish between what complies with international law and what does not. And also between products which according to international law are kosher and which are not.

But sometimes I’m afraid I might get it anyway. Namely, that the blunt all-or-nothing story has less to do with the fear of delegitimization, but comes from blind ideological fervor in Israeli government circles.

If so it is even more important to stay within the legal discourse which at the moment is practised by Europe in a pretty correct fashion.

Also see The Village of Norway and The Green Line and the Red Line

donderdag 1 augustus 2013


If you’re even a little sensitive to it, the ugliness of our manmade, built environment may unpleasantly take you by surprise. I am thinking of industrial areas, 1950’s-neighborhoods, modern agricultural complexes.

At the same time at such moments I have the idea that this ugliness of the built environment is a relatively recent phenomenon. Then I feel that there was a period, say up to about 1800, that everything man made was in harmony with the surroundings, and therefore nice. Whether it concerned buildings, tools, furniture or other artifacts.

Of course ancient shovels could be dilapidated and neglected and there could be smell in the streets and along the water. But that is different from the way plastic or concrete or galvanized steel detonate with the environment. The latter do not fit any longer into the natural environment, a break has occurred. It is true, beautiful effects may result from that, but the break is also the cause of the unimaginable ugliness by which we are surrounded.

Sometimes I fancy to recognize the phenomenon of fit and misfit at the level of a simple brick and the radiance that emanates from it. Actually, I've never seen a pre-nineteenth century brick that was not beautiful in the sense that it detonated with the environment. But after 1800 ugly, flat, industrial bricks come up. Fortunately also beautiful bricks are still being made, but by the increasing use of machines and technology a brick is no longer necessarily beautiful: some species of bricks are just ugly.

However, I do not know if my neat before-and-after-1800 schematism is tenable. In any case, it recently was pierced when I saw a medieval cityscape bearing the image of a port crane. The image was probably 15th century, but I found that crane an ugly structure: awkward and artificial, protrusive and technical. In short, it showed all features of ugliness. So, were cranes ugly already long before 1800? Or have they always been, from the outset?