This article appeared in July 2015, in Romanian, in BIZ Magazine
A little flexibility is good in life, career and even in business. Or, like Groucho Marx said: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”.
We live in a society of confident people, with firm opinions, who know what they have to do and don’t change their minds too easily. At the first sight, there is nothing wrong with this. It seems like a good thing. However, I believe that this is one of our negative traits and if we’d manage to become more flexible, we’d be more successful and more satisfied with ourselves.
Appeal to authority
It was difficult to choose a motto from the few famous quotes I use when I try to convince students that being able to change your mind is a noble virtue. Here are the others: “Appuyons-nous sur les principes, ils finiront toujours par céder” – Talleyrand; “Stubborn and ardent clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity” – Montaigne; “Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire.” – Charlie Munger. But the fact that some wise gentlemen and I said it, should not be enough for a serious argument. I will try to show why the strongest beliefs must be periodically challenged, which are the mechanisms that make our opinions inflexible and what we can do with them, all illustrated with business examples and more.
Why is it not good to have rigid beliefs?
In any project there is one thing more harmful than being inefficient: you can be efficient in the wrong direction. I learned this from Adrian Stanciu and the discussion started from the semantic difference between “efficient” and “effective”. If you need to get from Bucharest to Constanta and you want to take the A1 you can be very efficient: you take some shortcuts to highway, you have a high-performance car that is fast and fuel-efficient, you leave at dawn when the traffic is light.
The problem is that, being convinced that the A1 goes to seaside (and not the A2, as it really is), you move efficiently far away from Constanta. That’s why it’s sometimes necessary to shake off our strongest beliefs and to reconsider them. It’s good to take a few minutes break from the current KPIs to see if these indicators bring us closer or, actually, take us away from our original purpose.
There are a lot of mechanisms that make our minds, conservative by nature, hold on to a wrong belief. Here are five of them:
- Groupthink – because that’s what everyone says
Have you ever been part of a group where you felt you had to agree with the others, even though you somehow disagreed with the decision? That’s the definition of groupthink and the problem in such groups is that the need for consensus is greater than the need for exploring alternatives or paying attention to opposing viewpoints.
Examples. Groupthink can manifest itself in two ways. One way (softly) – you feel that a project is going in the wrong direction or a decision is bad, but you shut up because you feel like your point of view won’t be received with open arms. A famous example is the bankruptcy of Swiss Air – the directors were firmly convinced that the company is invulnerable and that they are the wisest persons on earth, so any other opinion was ignored. Another example is how the Americans planned the (disastrous) invasion of Cuba in 1961. In subsequent interviews, some members of the decision-making board said the disaster seemed imminent, but the fact that everyone else seemed convinced of success, made them remain quiet.
The other kind of groupthink is the one in which collective beliefs are contagious and a member becomes truly convinced that things are the way they are just because the others think so. An unfortunate example is the audience of several politically involved televisions which is influenced by some fanatics who continually debate the pros and cons of Basescu as president, even though his term ended few months ago.
What should we do? In Japan, people invite to their business meetings a person who doesn’t agree with the proposed decision and, in case that there is no such a person, one of the participants must play the role of the devil’s advocate. Another effective practice is to write down on a piece of paper the opinions you have before the meeting and compare these initial opinions with the final ones after the meeting is over.
- Appeal to authority – because that’s what the boss says
The appeal to authority like “X said so, so it’s true” works (and not even then in 100% of cases) when X is an authority in that field. “I can’t help you carry the couch because the doctor forbade me to lift weights” is a correct reasoning because the doctor studied many years so that he can give you that indication (and yet in medical practice there is a very healthy habit of asking for a second opinion). The appeal to authority is instead very harmful when X is the boss and the boss must always be right.
Examples. In 2005, Meg Whitman, eBay’s CEO, decides to continue the investment in the Chinese subsidiary, without understanding the risk of presenting counterfeit products for sale on the platform. So, if eBay allowed the sale of counterfeit products, it would’ve upset the owners of those brands. If, instead, eBay would’ve banned this practice, its market share would’ve been swallowed up by Taobao, a Chinese competitor with no moral dilemmas (which actually happened in 2007). Meg Whitman, Princeton and Harvard graduate, former vice president of Disney and P&G (now CEO of HP), had a reputation as an outstanding businesswoman. As a consequence, even though she had no experience in Chinese market, she was not contradicted by anyone. A local example is the downfall of mic.ro, an enterprise built by Dinu Patriciu using a business model and some practices that no one from the team had the courage to contradict.
What should we do? Many companies have a healthy habit when holding meetings – the participants need to speak in a hierarchical ascending order, to prevent the tendency of subordinates to always agree with the boss in order not to upset him.
- Backfire effect – when a belief defines us, someone’s attempt to change it becomes an assault
In the face of evidence that shows the contrary, some misconceptions don’t change, but become even stronger. This strange psychological effect occurs when that person’s personality or even identity is based on such a strong belief. A study conducted in the United States on a group of Republican sympathizers showed that their level of acceptance regarding weapons of mass destruction didn’t decrease, but increased after reading an article presenting contrary evidence. You can show to a political fanatic that his idol stole and lied and not only he won’t believe you, but will love him even more, now, in his hard times.
Example. In the early ’90s, I worked for “Evenimentul Zilei”, the most important newspaper back then and a real press academy. A few years ago, when the economic crisis was knocking on our door, I met a former colleague, a very good professional who remained in the press. Despite my arguments about the written press being in decline all over the world and that the crisis is coming, he was stubborn and hold on to his beliefs that he doesn’t have to find other field of activity because the world will always need a good journalist. I’m sorry I was right. I didn’t know then about the backfire effect, I didn’t know that I was actually digging into the foundation of his conception of himself. My colleague not only defined himself as a journalist, but he defined himself exclusively as a journalist, so he thought that if he loses that, he loses everything.
What should we do? If our interlocutor has such a conviction that underlies his identity, the direct approach will only strengthen his opinion, but will make him mad at us. The approach suggested by specialists in behavioral psychology has two steps: first, we must try to increase his self-esteem and help him dissociate that belief from his own person, so that only then we can rationally talk about his wrong belief.
- Argumentation as a duel – because I’m no one’s fool
The concept of debate as a duel prevails in modern Western culture (of which we are part of). We think that if we let someone convince us of something, we lose and we’re considered fools. And if we’re right, we win. In fact, in many board meetings, everyone’s favorite sport is to be right. Cosmin Alexandru wrote a good article about this, “The justice in organizations”.
I want to present you a counterintuitive point of view supported by the philosopher Daniel H. Cohen in a TED talk. Cohen says that when we debate something and finally convince the other, we don’t really gain anything. We stay the same, maybe become a little more arrogant. Instead, when we “lose” the debate, we actually gain something: we gain a new, fair point of view, which replaces the old, wrong one. We gain a new truth, and not any truth, but one forged in debate, on which we can rely quite a lot. In conclusion, the real winner of a debate is actually the one who loses it. I hope that this way of seeing things will gain popularity in our country as well. I don’t think I have to give examples of contradictory discussions in which the truth is secondary to the need to be right, it’s a situation we encounter every day.
What should we do? I think that if we have an interlocutor who only wants to be right, we can use two soft weapons and a hard, rational one. The soft weapons are empathy (the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and to understand what is important to him and why) and calm (because a raised voice makes the other person less interested in what we say and more focused on how we say it). The hard, rational weapon is: when we realize that we are dealing with someone who just wants to be right, ask him candidly: “Can you imagine changing your point of view at the end of this discussion?”.
- Status-quo – why change something?
The way things are or how they are done is the best definition of a group’s culture (people, organization, health or education system, etc.). And it’s very difficult to change, even when it’s obvious that the change would be for the better. The status-quo is protected from fear of change or just laziness and it takes a lot of energy, enthusiasm and enlightened leadership to counter them. A famous experiment with monkeys (that I’m sure you’ve heard about) captures very well the essence of how deep beliefs in organizational culture lose their origin in the mists of the past, so that no one knows why things are done the way they are done. However, I am not going to describe it here because some people said it’s just an invention. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Examples. In Romania, although small and medium enterprises provide about 55% of GDP, entrepreneurs still have a bad image. In many social categories there is the believe that the employer is getting rich by taking advantage of his employees and by lying their customers. This view, forged in left-wing propaganda in the early 1990s, not only undermines a massive category (entrepreneurs invest their own money, take the risk and most often work harder than their employees), but also has concrete effects by discouraging entrepreneurial initiatives in small and less progressive communities.
What should we do? An article in the “Harvard Business Review” proposes a very interesting mechanism to avoid getting stuck in the decisions that are strongly related to our beliefs: ask yourself if you would choose the status-quo alternative in the hypothetical situation where it’s not the case for the status-quo. If the answer is “no” and you would change something in your approach, then it’s just a matter of laziness or fear of change and you have to start doing something.
I have tried to show that flexibility of opinion (the ability to change one’s mind), far from being a weakness, is a noble and beneficial virtue. And any virtue requires exercise. So now, at the end, I will militate for the establishment of a National Day to Examine My Own Opinions and I will start by asking you, dear reader, to take a strong belief you have and analyze it objectively (if it’s good or bad, true or false) as if you are reflecting on it for the first time today. You might be surprised.