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.