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Chapter 13. Analyzing and Evaluating Thinking in Corporate and Organizational Life


Living a human life, as we have seen, entails a variety of relationships and membership in a variety of human groups. Both the relationships and the groups to which we belong typically have a profound influence on our thinking, our emotions, and our desires. In Chapter 11, we considered the broadest implications of this fact, especially the implications of sociocentrism, a term that highlights group-dominated thinking in human life. In this chapter, we will focus somewhat more narrowly, on the problem of thinking effectively and working for change in corporate and other organizational structures.

To think effectively in corporate and organizational settings, it is helpful to consider the logic of these structures and explicitly face the questions one should ask when operating within them. The more we understand the logic of our circumstances, the more effectively we can act.

Here is our plan. We will deal with the logic of organizational structures in some detail first, approaching their potential transformation from a number of different standpoints, including that of three predictable obstacles: the struggle for power, group definitions of reality, and bureaucracy. We will also look at the problem of "misleading success" as well as the relation between competition, sound thinking, and success. We will spell out some essential questions each of us should ask when working within a corporate or organizational setting. Following that, toward the end of the chapter, we will analyze six hypothetical cases illustrating some of the ways critical thinking might be applied to decision-making in a corporate or organizational setting. We will close the chapter with a list of conditions essential for success in facilitating a culture of critical thinking. The conditions we list suggest ways that an organization or corporation can begin to organize itself for long-range success through the use of critical thinking.

There are a number of factors we must take into account in thinking our way through organizational and corporate structures, factors that interact in different ways in different settings. Often we lack some of the vital facts we need to make sound decisions and must therefore judge in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. Often we cannot answer all the questions we would like to answer. In any case, critical thinking does not guarantee us the truth - rather, it affords us a way to maximize our best chance for it.

Critical Thinking and Incremental Improvement

The success of any organization is largely a function of the quality of the thinking done within it. But success is usually partial rather than complete. Doing one thing well, we may do another thing poorly. Thinking well in one context, we may think poorly in another. We may achieve our goals in the short-run at the expense of achieving them in the long-run. We may succeed simply because we perform at a somewhat higher level than the competition. We rarely have absolute success in human life. The spirit of critical thinking is an organized and disciplined way of achieving continual improvement in thinking and therefore of attaining fuller and more complete success over time. It consists in thinking at progressively higher levels in virtue of a deliberate and practical commitment to quality of thinking.

Test the Idea

Name one domain or context (for example, the professional domain) in which you believe that you think reasonably well and compare it to another in which you believe your thinking to be of lower quality (for example, in intimate relationships). Explain the "evidence" you have that convinces you of this.

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 book The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene 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:

Greene goes on to argue for a private, though deliberate, commitment to deviousness: "In the world 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

Another Obstacle: Group Definitions of Reality

Within all organizations, there is a natural generation of "favorable self-description" or "self-serving representation." This involves an image the organization fosters of itself, both inwardly and outwardly. How explicitly and openly these representations are stated varies from organization to organization, as does the degree of contradiction between presentation and fact. By their very nature groups have a vested interest in presenting the most favorable picture of themselves to those outside. Typically, therefore, a rosier picture than is actually the case is created for external consumption. Even within an organization there are usually some truths that remain unspoken and taboo. Being an "insider" does not mean you can say anything you want to other insiders.

For example, some doctors are aware of more medical malpractice than they are willing to publicly discuss. Lawyers sometimes play down the fact that some lawyers routinely bill clients for more time than they spend on their clients' cases and that judges sometimes decide a case as a result of their personal beliefs and reaction to the appearance and demeanor of the accused, rather than by the relevant facts of the case and the meaning and intent of the law. Sociologists study this phenomenon under the categories of "in-group and out-group" behavior. Social psychologists study it under the category of social self-deception.

Test the Idea
Group Definitions of Reality

When we experience people we do not first see the person as a set of independent characteristics and then synthesize the parts into a whole. Rather, we typically see people as "instant" wholes. We interpret the "parts" accordingly. Behind these judgments, that often occur in a fraction of a second, are often an organized set of "definitions" of how things are. Hence, a person in management will often approach a "union" man with as many preconceptions as the union man approaches him. Select some job or professional situation in which you had a role. Review it in your mind and see if you can isolate any of the implicit (biased) "definitions" that guide behavior and perceptions on the job. How were you supposed to behave? How were others supposed to behave? Can you think of any situation in which you "opposed" some definition implicit in the established view of things? Do you remember how that opposition was received?

These realities must be taken into account in seeking to establish a culture of critical thinking within any organization or institution. This does not mean that it is unrealistic to attempt to foster that culture. But it does mean that the advantages of critical thinking may not be apparent to all concerned. In the short run, critical thinking may expose short-comings in the status quo. Those who personally gain from the status quo may be threatened by such an exposure of weaknesses. Individuals may confuse critical thinking with negative thinking or mistakenly assume that critical thinking is equivalent to whatever they personally happen to think. Individuals may also feel personally threatened by discussions that may suggest potential problems associated with them and their work. One must proceed with great caution in these circumstances.

A Third Obstacle: The Problem of Bureaucracy

No matter how successful any organization may be at the present, there is no guarantee of future success. The challenge is to break-through the natural assumption that future success is somehow guaranteed. In companies and organizations transitioning from small to large, for example, one must explicitly face the difficulty of emerging bureaucracy. Bureaucratization is a state in which employees work increasingly by fixed routine rather than through the exercise of intelligent judgment. With bureaucracy, narrowness in thinking emerges. There is a proliferation of hard-and-fast rules and fixed procedures - wrongly thought to contribute to efficiency and quality control. With bureaucracy in place, the original goal of an organization fades into the background. Individuals within the organization begin building small bastions of power and devising ways of warding off any potential threats to their power. Change is usually interpreted as a threat.

The problem of bureaucracy exists in virtually all large organizations - for example, in legal systems that sacrifice justice to power and expediency; in public health systems that poorly serve the health of the citizens; in schools that fail to educate; in governmental structures that serve the vested interests of those in power rather than the public. Large bureaucracies generate a vast network of regulations and tacit "strategies" that define "appropriate" rules of conduct. They stifle creativity and innovation. Important questions are coldly received. Thinking that challenges the status quo is stifled. Innovative thinking is dismissed as irresponsible, absurd, unreasonable, or impractical. Rules and regulations become ends in themselves rather than vehicles for reasonable decisions.

All organizations, even small ones, have a natural tendency toward stagnation. This includes a tendency to lose sight of their original goals, a tendency to begin to serve those who operate it rather than those it purports to serve. But largeness presents special problems. And large organizations that do not have to face any real competition are doubly at risk of becoming bureaucratic. Governmental bureaucracies, for example, are notorious for serving the vested interest of those who operate them, rather than the interests of those they were originally designed to serve. They typically respond only to public scandal or to the few with the external power to put political pressure on them. Rigidity and a lost sense of mission are their normal state.

Test the Idea
Bureaucratic Thinking

Can you think of any situation in which you experienced problems that resulted from "bureaucratic thinking?" Can you identify how, in this situation, attachment to fixed routine prevented someone from exercising intelligent judgment? Do you see a relationship between a "letter-of-the-law mentality" and bureaucratic thinking? In your experience how widespread is the problem of bureaucratic thinking in your culture?

The Problem of Misleading Success

Poor thinking does not necessarily reveal itself immediately as such. The fact is that even thinking of the most absurd kind may prove successful for a time, if it caters to the egocentrism and prejudices of people and fits into an established logic of power. We can see this clearly in a historical context if we examine some of the Facist thinking which, though deeply flawed, was accepted by highly intelligent people, including leaders of German industry, in the 1930's and 40's.

Winston Churchill (1948) summarizes the thinking of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf:

Man is a fighting animal; therefore the nation, being a community of fighters, is a fighting unit. Any living organism which ceases to fight for its existence is doomed to extinction. A country or race which ceases to fight is equally doomed. The fighting capacity of a race depends on its purity. Hence the need for ridding it of foreign defilements. The Jewish race, owing to its universality, is of necessity pacifist and internationalist. Pacifism is the deadliest sin; it means the surrender of the race in the fight for existence. The first duty of every country is therefore to nationalize the masses; intelligence in the case of the individual is not of first importance: will and determination are the prime qualities. The individual who is born to command is more valuable than countless thousands of subordinate natures. Only brute force can ensure the survival of the race; hence the necessity for military forms. The race must fight; a race that rests must rust and perish. Had the German race been united in good time, it would have been already master of the globe. The new Reich must gather within its fold all the scattered German elements in Europe. A race which has suffered defeat can be rescued by restoring its self-confidence. Above all things the Army must be taught to believe in its own invincibility. To restore the German nation, the people must be convinced that the recovery of freedom by force of arms is possible. The aristocratic principle is fundamentally sound. Intellectualism is undesirable. The ultimate aim of education is to produce a German who can be converted with a minimum of training into a soldier...(pp. 55–56)

Despite the absurdity of this thinking, the vast majority of Germans came to accept it, including, we should emphasize, the heads of German industry. German industrial leaders were quite willing to work within the confines of (absurd) Nazi ideology - as long as it brought profits. For almost five years, this thinking seemed to produce economic and military success. German industry thrived. German aggression triumphed. Fascist ideology flourished.

History provides us with many examples of successful, but poor, thinking based on the Immediate-Gain-Above-All-Else mentality - i.e., the plantation system based on slavery; the factory system based on child labor; Stalin's system of forced labor; and more recently, the asbestos industry, the tobacco industry, and the nuclear power industry. More pointedly, of special note are the American Oil industry's success in taking advantage of the monopolistic practices of OPEC to achieve windfall profits or the global emphasis on short-term economic gain over environmental health. Short-term thinking that sacrifices the public good may bring immense short-term profits. The long-term costs of their thinking are enormous, and often go far beyond the strictly economic dimensions of life.

For example, historians generally agree that Hitler could not have succeeded without the support of the heads of industry. The cost of their thinking - along with that of their fellow Germans - included upward of 50,000,000 lives lost and untold human suffering. We should never assume that individuals will automatically think critically, not even people of high position or high intelligence.

The problem of short-term vested interest thinking can be found both on a large scale and in everyday "mundane" business practices. In one case, a United States District Court Judge in Norfolk, Virginia found that the nation's largest income-tax preparation company had engaged in false advertisement in using the phrase "rapid refund" and other terms "deliberately intended to disguise expensive loans that Block arranges for people anticipating refunds on their income taxes." The judge found that Block had gone to great lengths "to conceal the reality that, rather than receiving refunds, clients were taking out high interests loans to obtain their money a few days sooner." He pointed out that in some loans "the annual percentage rate charged was more than 500 percent." He also roundly condemned the company for "signing consent decrees promising not to engage in false advertising," and then after "they consented to one state's order they have simply taken their advertisements to a new jurisdiction and continued to run similarly offensive advertisements." (New York Times, February 28, 2001)

Test the Idea
Short-Term Thinking

Can you think of any situation in which you experienced problems that resulted from "short-term thinking?" Can you identify how, in this situation, attachment to a short-term goal prevented someone from recognizing significant problems for the future? In your experience how widespread is the problem of short-term thinking? Some might argue that short-term thinking, even thinking such as implied in the quote above by the Block company executives, is good business thinking if significant scandal can be avoided.

A key question is how can organizations, both small and large-scale, avoid defective forms of thought, i.e., rigid thinking, short-range thinking, bureaucratic thinking, ideological thinking, or just plain unethical thinking? That is, how can organizations, in the light of predictable obstacles, cultivate critical thinking as an organizational value? How can we, situated as we are, persuade leadership in the organizations in which we live and work that critical thinking is a key to long-range growth and dynamic change fueling that growth? Our answers to these questions will emerge as we synthesize our thinking at the close of this chapter.

We can advance the discussion now by exploring some of the connections between competition, sound thinking, and success.

Competition, Sound Thinking, and Success

Businesses, in contrast to governmental agencies, have the "advantage" of needing to make a profit to survive. Unlike governmental bureaucracies, which become largely a world unto themselves, businesses must continually pass the muster of competition. Only a few, like large oil companies colluding on a world-wide basis to fix prices, are able to force everyone else to conform to their demands. Most businesses face genuine competition they must meet to survive.

For example, out of new (small) businesses, 3 out of 4 fail in the first year; 9 out of 10 over a ten year period. Failure is much more common in business than success. The market is a stern task master. This forces companies to do some critical thinking, at least enough to survive the competition.

Nevertheless, large-scale success in business, even over 20 or 30 years, is no guarantee of success in the future. When businesses become large they become bureaucratized. When they become bureaucratized, they verge toward organizational stagnation. Their thinking is paralyzed by red tape and policies and procedures that prevent growth and adjustment to changing circumstances and realities.

When bureaucratic thinking rules an organization, it tends to lose market strength and growth potential. It's earnings decline; it becomes less competitive, and rigidity becomes the order of the day. Examples include the American auto industry (from 1960-1980), Woolworth, Motown Records, the Sears catalog division, and Rolls-Royce. All significantly declined despite holding a previously strong place in the market. Each lost the spirit of innovation. Sears began to significantly decline when it failed to successfully participate in the mail-order boom and General Motors when it ignored the small-car revolution until it had lost major market share to Japanese auto makers.

Stagnating Organizations and Industries

In the vast majority of stagnating organizations or industries, thinking is used to justify not changing, to defend the status quo, not to transform it. Defective thinking becomes an internal obstruction: justifying a refusal to seriously consider evidence that indicates flaws. Weak earnings, low morale, obsolete product lines, are rationalized. Poor thinking is denied. The evidence that should precipitate a change in thinking is set aside or denied. It is very difficult for a critical thinker to work effectively in an organization trapped in poor thinking. This is one of the many reasons that excellent thinkers tend to gravitate toward organizations which are smaller, less committed to a party line, more open to innovation and new lines of thought.

Poor corporate thinking produces poor policies, rigid bureaucratic procedures, resistance to change, complacency, and internal conflict - though not necessarily all at once, and certainly not all from the beginning. Only when critical thinking is a corporate value will an organization remain dynamic in the long-run. Critical thinking as an organizational value serves as a motivator to routinely "re-think" policies, procedures, and ideas. Change becomes a given, but of course not change for change sake. Rather, change becomes the product of new thinking that has effectively analyzed and assessed more established thinking, retaining what is well-grounded and relevant, replacing what is out of touch or inaccurate. With critical thinking as the instrument, one never jumps off the deep end. One learns to read the relevant evidence from multiple standpoints.

Questioning Organizational Realities

In light of the analysis developed thus far in the chapter, there are a set of fundamental questions we should ask in reflecting on the limiting conditions within which we work:

Test the Idea
Dealing with Reality

Think through the questions listed above focusing on the organization for which you work, or on an organization for which you worked in the past.

Now, using the elements of thought, we can refine or follow-up on the background questions we just asked:

Each of these questions, taken seriously, enables us to think more accurately and realistically about the organization and the role we might seek to play. They enable us to form the big picture, to put things into a larger perspective, to adopt goals and strategies that make sense. They make it possible to protect ourselves.

Test the Idea
Dealing with Reality II

Spend some time pondering the questions in the section you just read. The idea is that the more time we spend analyzing the logic of the organizations within which we work, the better we can function within them (assuming our analysis does not imply we should leave).

Assessing Irrational Thinking in Organizational Life

We all participate in life in a multi-dimensional way. We play many roles. We become involved in many groups, organizations, and institutions. For the most part, we act in settings in which critical thinking is not a basic value on the part of others. Often, we are dealing with people who are egocentric or irrational in various dimensions of their lives. Often, we are dealing with people who are striving for more power and are willing to sacrifice basic values to their short-term vested interest. Often, we are dealing with people who are easily threatened by thinking that differs from their own or with bureaucracies enveloped in red tape and disfunctional regulations or with people who are significantly self-deceived. Sometimes we are dealing with people who use critical thinking skills to obscure rather than reveal the truth and are principally focused on their own selfish advantage. Sometimes we may find ourselves working within an industry that has a negative effect on the quality of life in the community - e.g., the tobacco industry.

Nevertheless, it is in our long-term interest to develop as thinkers, to apply our best thinking in our lives, and to become lifelong learners. It is in all our interests that critical thinking becomes part of the culture of the organizational structures in society. The question is: "how can we use our thinking to best advantage in settings that often do not reward the best thinking and may at times punish it?"

There is no simple answer to this question. Becoming skilled in analyzing and assessing our personal circumstances in organizational structures takes insight and practice. We must ask the right questions, but we must also discover the essential facts. In the end, our judgments will still often be no more than probabilities. Let us look at some hypothetical cases and consider some elementary thinking about the logic of the decisions they offer. The thinking we propose is merely illustrative. We do not consider it definitive. A great deal would depend on the precise facts of the situation. We present our analysis as merely plausible and reasonable (as far as it goes). You might disagree with us in one or more case. Your analysis might be better than ours - or at least a plausible alternative.

Case # 1: An American Auto Maker Executive or Manager during the 1970s or '80s

You recognize that your company (and other American companies) is losing market share to Japanese automobile manufacturers. This trend is not denied by the company, but is explained as a product of the "fact" that Japanese workers work harder and more efficiently than American workers (with their union protections). Within the received view of management, the solution to the problem is that Japanese imports should be restricted since the competition is "unfair." It seems to you that emerging data gathered from auto plants operated by Japanese companies in America (using American labor) support the conclusion that the problem is not that of American worker laziness but rather of poor (American) management. You recognize that your view will not be well received by upper management and that your future with the company may be jeopardized by pressing this viewpoint. What are your options?

Analysis of Case # 1: The options in a case like this will vary in accordance with the specific facts in the situation and must be determined in context. Some facts may be hard to obtain. For example, it is often difficult to predict what individuals may do in circumstances in which you have not observed them. What is more, how individuals respond is dependent on how they interpret the situation. How they interpret the situation, in turn, depends in part on how the situation is presented to them and what their interests are. You may not be well positioned to make accurate predictions regarding the probable response of a number of people.

Clearly, your overall choice is to stay or go. If you stay, you must decide whether to try to influence present company policy or simply do your best within it. If you decide to influence company policy you must decide how to present your views in the least challenging way, and to whom and under what circumstances. If you decide to go, you must decide your timing and your transition to another job situation. As part of this thinking, you should make sure you are not simply trading one inflexible environment for another.

In addition, your values and needs are crucial. To what extent is it important to you to feel that you are part of a thriving concern? To what extent will you be frustrated if you suppress your actual views and work in a setting in which views that you consider inaccurate are being used as a basis for company decision-making? To what extent can you derive satisfaction simply by doing your job to the best of your ability within the context of decisions you cannot control? To what extent can you indirectly and behind the scenes encourage the company to move in the direction that you consider is important? What are your long-term hopes and plans? What would you like to be doing in five years? In ten years? What does all of this add-up to in your mind?

Case # 2: A Professor Recognizing the Need for Academic Reform

You are a professor with tenure in an academic department at a State University. You observe a number of problems that are not being addressed by the university. You notice that professors are largely assessed in terms of their ability to get along with the other professors in their department, on the one hand, and by their popularity with students, on the other - rather than by their professional standing and actual teaching ability. You recognize that some professors who are poor teachers and questionable scholars are promoted. You recognize that some professors who are excellent teachers and scholars are released. In addition, you discover that many graduating seniors lack fundamental reading, writing, and thinking skills. You recognize also that it is politically dangerous to suggest to faculty committees that there are serious problems of instruction and learning at the university. You also come to recognize, through informal conversations, that the administration is not likely to adopt any policy that will bring it into serious conflict with the faculty.

Analysis of Case # 2. The options in a case of this kind, like case # 1, varies in accordance with the specific facts in the situation and must be determined in context. As in case # 1, some of those facts may be hard to come by. There is always the problem of predicting what particular individuals may do in circumstances in which you have not yet observed them. In this case, the problem is largely political rather than academic. The political problem is one of gaining sufficient support for reform among those who have the power to facilitate it. Clearly, those most threatened by reform will organize to defend their interests, as soon as they see those interests threatened. The political issue becomes one of determining how to motivate those open-minded enough to see the need for reform - while minimally threatening those likely to oppose it. Of course, like most organizational political problems, much of the work must be done behind the scenes rather than openly. Few will openly oppose the idea of more effective assessment of professors or measures designed to produce more effective instruction. Yet within a large organization there are always many ways for those whose interest is in perpetuating the status quo to undermine reform efforts.

One option is to take the long view and work quietly behind the scenes over a number of years. Another option is to concentrate one's efforts on improving one's own scholarship and instruction, ignoring the problems requiring action on the part of others. A third is to become an agent for change in a larger arena, seeking to document problems in a more global way, while studiously avoiding documenting "local" problems. In this latter case, one might write articles or books on the general problems facing universities. A fourth option is to leave academia for industry.

As always, your personal values, preferences, and needs are very important. In which option are you likely to be doing the sorts of things that motivate and fulfil you? Some people seem to thrive in a political environment, others find it distasteful and unrewarding. Some seem able to work well within a system that has significant problems. Others find it difficult to "ignore" or set aside systemic problems while functioning within a system.

Case # 3: Working in a Setting in which There is Significant Personal Conflict

You are working in a setting in which there is a great deal of personal conflict. You find yourself suffering from stress even though you are not a party to the conflict. Each side in the conflict attempts to draw you in on their side.

Analysis of Case # 3. Here are some of the crucial questions: To what extent is the conflict a matter of conflicting personalities or conflicting styles? To what extent are there important issues at the root of the personal conflict? How would you assess the rationality of the conflicting sides? To what extent does the conflict relate to the structure of power and to questions of power? What are the implications of one or the other side winning the struggle? What are the implications for the individuals? What are the implications for the organization? To what extent can you change your own thinking - the thinking that is leading you to feel stress? To what extent can you focus inward on your immediate job and escape involvement in the conflict? Ideally, what is the best way to resolve the conflict? What are the chances of the "best way" being achieved? Is there anything you can do to facilitate resolution of the conflict?

Case # 4: Working for an Unreasonable Boss

You are working in a setting in which the main person you must answer to is an irrational person, one given to extreme mood swings and to blaming others for his own deficiencies. Though irrational much of the time, he sees himself as a reasonable person who does not suffer fools gladly.

Analysis of Case # 4. Since the person you are working for is significantly irrational, appeal to his reason will be ineffective. Secondly, since he has significantly more power than you have, you have no choice but to pander to his ego and thereby avoid his wrath or to seek other employment or both. If you make the mistake of attempting to show him that he is being irrational, you will regret it, for he will find a way to conceptualize your behavior in a negative way and seek ways to punish you for "misrepresenting" him.

Case # 5: An Unreasonable Employee (with an underdog ego)

You are supervising an employee with an "underdog" ego. He regularly blames himself for mistakes he makes, but does not make any serious improvement. He is always willing to negate himself, but does not seem to be able to make progress. He continually promises to do better, but does not.

Analysis of Case # 5. Since the person working for you has an inferiority complex and lacks insight into his own make-up, appeals to his reason will be ineffective. The best solution will probably be to release him and try to hire a more rational person in his place. If you decide to work with him, you must set a specific time-line with specific expected improvements. You must follow-through on that timeline and on the consequences you establish in the event he does not improve. It is very unlikely that a person who is used to criticize himself as a substitute for changing himself will escape the pattern by himself (unless, in his more rational moments, he recognizes the pattern and is strongly motivated to change).

Case # 6: An Unreasonable Employee (with a dominating ego)

You are supervising an employee with a "top dog" ego who is also a skilled weak-sense critical thinker. She regularly finds ways to blame others for her deficiencies. She has an explanation for every mistake. The problem almost always turns out - when she does not blame it on others - to be a result of her having too little resources or out of date equipment or other circumstances beyond her control. She is very creative in evading personal responsibility for any problem or mistake.

Analysis of Case # 6. Since the person working for you has a superiority complex and lacks insight into her own make-up, appeals to reason will be ineffective. The best solution will probably be to release her and try to hire a more rational person in her place. If you decide to work with her, you will have a great deal of difficulty because of her skills of rationalization. Since she already thinks of herself as performing at a high level and this conception is an important part of her self-identity, it will be very difficult to get her to take ownership of his deficiencies.

Case #7: A College President Uses College Funds to Support a Project at His Sister's Request

You are an administrator on a college campus reporting to the president. A local public school submits a request to the college for textbook covers. The school asks that the college produce paper covers with the college's logo and information about what the college offers printed on back. In this way, the college is able to market its programs while also providing the school with the covers it needs. As the Vice President of Community Relations, this request comes to your office. At first glance the request seems reasonable. But as you inquire further into the request you find that the person submitting it is the sister of your college president. When you bring the situation to the president for discussion, he says that he knew his sister would be submitting it. Furthermore he says that, since the college will be able to advertise its programs in a relatively inexpensive way by granting the request, he supports it. You mention your concern that it might seem to others that the real reason why the request was granted is because the president is motivated to help a family member. You also tell the president that should other schools make similar requests you will be hard-pressed not to grant them given the fact that you will be doing it for this one school. You add that the college cannot afford to do this for all schools in the large city within which you live. The president says not to worry, that it is unlikely that any other school will make such a request. He also says that he is not granting the request because his sister made it, rather that he thinks it is a good way of marketing the college's programs. He tells you not to get so worked up about things.

Analysis of Case #7: One option is simply to accept the president's reasoning. Because the book covers are going to provide information about the programs offered by the college, you can justify using money from the marketing budget to fund the project. On the other hand, it seems clear that the real reason behind the plan is to use college funds to help the president's sister. Reasoning further with the president seems futile since it seems clear that he is committed to his position. Moreover you know from your past interactions with him that when he has a vested interest in a project he will become disgruntled if you try to convince him that he should consider alternative ways of looking at the situation.

The question you must answer is whether it is in your best interest and in keeping with your values to proceed with the request. You will need to decide whether you are able, in good conscience, to work within the conditions set by the president and the current power structure. If you leave the college and move to a new college, will you likely find yourself in a similar situation? Since you understand how the "old boy network" operates, could you even get a job at another college or, through his connections, might the president be able to effectively block other opportunities you might have for employment? Do you have other viable career possibilities?

If you decide to tell the president you cannot in clear conscience support the project, what would the likely implications be? Would he find opportunities to "punish" you? Might he, for example, refuse to give you an annual pay increase? Might he see that you do not receive further promotions? Might he find another position for you on campus, one with less responsibility and power so that you cause him fewer problems?

Test the Idea
Analyzing Situations

Generate your own case for analysis. First, describe a problematic situation at work. Then, analyze the situation. What are your options for action?

The Power of Sound Thinking

Any company or industry that makes critical thinking a company-wide or industry-wide value acquires the ability to anticipate and effect constructive change, for only critical thinking can provide the impetus for continual re-thinking and evaluation of all present ideas, policies, and strategies. Without critical thinking built into the culture of an organization, short-range thinking is likely to predominate. Of course, short-range thinking may work for a time. For a time, it may be new. It may represent essential change. But if novel thinking is not eventually subject to critique, to adjustment, to refinement, to transformation, then, sooner or later, it becomes problematic and rigid.

One challenge we face in bringing critical thinking into any organizational structure is that, upon being questioned, most people think they already think critically and therefore that there is nothing significant for them to learn. If you ask all of those present in a room full of people: "Would all those who think uncritically please raise your hand?" you are likely to have no takers. There is a natural illusion fostered by the human mind that leads all of us to think that our own thinking is well-tuned to reality - even when it is not, in fact especially when it is not. Only as people begin to develop as thinkers do they commonly recognize that their own thinking is often flawed and in need of transformation.

The result is that any really new corporate leadership must break-through the mundane self-deception characteristic of human thinking itself. It must overcome what might be called "the natural attitude." Hence, corporate leadership based on critical thinking must not only define a purpose and communicate that purpose, but an intrinsic part of that purpose must be commitment to critical thinking on the job at all levels. It is not enough that an organization have and communicate a purpose, it must be a well-thought-through purpose. It is not enough to energize workers, there must be a mechanism in place that helps ensure that the energy is intelligently used and effectively applied. Achieving, for example, a balance between control and empowerment is something that must be carefully thought through, for only quality of thought and analysis will generate the right balance.

The same holds for the balance between policy and autonomy. The employees and the managers must exercise judgment regarding both. Poor judgment regarding either will not effect a release from paralysis. By the same token, "listening to employees and customers" should be listening to them critically. In short, the notion of dynamic change and growth presupposes that the change and the growth are the right change and the right growth, and those judgments require nothing less than critical thinking. Unfortunately, critical thinking cannot be presupposed. It must be systematically fostered. Once a balance is achieved between policy and autonomy, between control and empowerment, and critical thinking is systematically fostered, it releases the collective energy of all parties in an organization.

When rigid thinking becomes pronounced, and the individuals in an organization no longer feel part of a vital purpose, or connected to the company's activities as a whole, a negative atmosphere emerges. Employees become estranged from the company, though part of it. They may or may not verbalize that estrangement. They will perceive their superiors as irresponsive to them and to their needs. Policies will seem to lack sense or be connected to the facts of their workaday world. They may hide their perceptions, believing that their perceptions would be rejected or ridiculed. Their only connection with their work becomes their paycheck, and perhaps a few friends who share their views.

Some Personal Implications

Use the following list of recommendations to assess your internalization of the main points of this chapter and your willingness to put the ideas into action:

  1. Establish the personal habit of routinely evaluating your thinking on the job. This includes answering and up-dating your answers to the following questions: What is your central goal in light of the job you have or role you play on the job? What are the obstacles or difficulties you face in accomplishing your job or fulfilling your role? What are you best at? What evidence do you have to support your conclusions? What do you do least well? What evidence do you have to document your conclusions? What strategies are you using to improve your job performance?

  2. Determine your level of power. What power do you have in virtue of your position? What additional power do you have, in comparison to others, in virtue of your willingness to think critically and face unpleasant realities?

  3. Determine the level and quality of thinking of those with whom you work. How would you assess the strengths and weaknesses of the thinking of your fellow workers? How does their thinking impact you?

  4. Determine the "in-house" definitions of reality. What "party-lines" or "propaganda" are generated on the job which you recognize to be both self-serving and, of course, false? To what extent must you verbally honor that propaganda as a condition of being taken seriously?

  5. Assess the level of bureaucratic thinking at your company. This will tie into "in-house" definitions of reality and favored "myths." Remember that bureaucracy is a state in which employees work increasingly by fixed routine rather than through the exercise of intelligent judgment. With bureaucratization, narrowness in thinking emerges. There is a proliferation of hard-and-fast rules and fixed procedures that make change difficult (when not impossible).

  6. Assess the level of short-term thinking at your company.

  7. Assess the level of stagnation in your company (or in your industry).

  8. Assess the level of egocentric thinking among those you work with (this ties in with # 3 in this list).

  9. Assess your own involvement, as a thinker, in "in-house" definitions of reality, party-lines, propaganda, as well as in bureaucratic, short-term, and egocentric thinking. Reconcile this analysis with your response to question # 1 in this list.


Membership in human groups is a blessing and a curse. The pressure to conform to the dominant thinking in a group is an inescapable problem. It is hard to improve one's thinking when forced to work with others who routinely assume that their unsound thinking is sound. What is more, we should never forget that within corporate and other organizational structures the full range of human emotions, motivations, and interests play themselves out. The flaws of the group and the flaws of the individuals in the group interact in a multitude of ways. In all of this, there is commonly a struggle for power taking place. Both group self-deception and the negative personal characteristics of the individuals (in the group) have an impact on corporate and organizational life.

To think effectively in corporate and organizational settings, we must understand, therefore, not only the general logic of these structures, but also the specific logic of the particular organizations in which we are living and working. In the privacy of our minds we must learn to ask the right questions. We must focus on essential facts. We must decide on our personal priorities. We must take the long view. We must be realistic and practical. We must be comfortable with probabilities, and we must be willing to test our ideas and change them in the light of our critically analyzed experience.

If we can successfully persuade organizational leadership to work toward a culture of critical thinking, both we and the organization can benefit in a lifelong way. Here are some important conditions for success:

  1. The leadership must consist in essentially rational persons with an abiding recognition that they, and everyone else in the organization, are capable of thinking and performing at a higher level than they are at present.

  2. The leadership must be intellectually humble, and hence, recognize mistakes they have made in the past, the limitations of their own present knowledge, and have a desire to grow and develop as thinkers.

  3. The leadership must take a long-term view of building a culture of critical thinking within the organization. Short-term thinking must be used only as a stopgap measure and should not be typical of the thinking of the organization.

  4. The leadership must be willing to release those persons who will actively resist making critical thinking an essential element in the organization's mission.

  5. All key personnel must, over an extended period of time, become proficient in analyzing and evaluating thinking.

  6. All key personnel must strive to be explicit as to the thinking (especially the assumptions) they are using in making key decisions. They must also be willing to fair-mindedly consider the pro's and con's of alternative possible decisions.

  7. All key personnel must actively invite alternative points of view and strive to incorporate the strengths and insights of those views.

  8. The language of critical thinking must be actively adopted as the language in which policies and decisions will be discussed.

  9. Critical thinking will be used in the conduct of meetings on all issues. (What is our purpose? What is the key question here? What data do we need to make this decision? Is there another way to interpret these data? What are we taking for granted here? Do we need to question that? What other points of view do we need to consider?).

  10. All key personnel and departments will operate with the assumption that whatever we do, and however high our present level of performance, we can perform at a higher level (tomorrow, next week, by mid year).

  11. All policies, rules, regulations, and procedures are open to being questioned and replaced by a better policy, rule, regulation, or procedure. No policy, rule, regulation, or procedure will be maintained simply because it is traditional. All will be kept to a minimum. All must effectively serve a clear-cut purpose.

  12. All attempts to build domains of power within the organization that do not clearly support the mission of the organization will be resisted.

  13. All communications within the organization will be models of clarity, accuracy, brevity, and relevance.

  14. All employees will maintain a portfolio of self-assessment, in which personal strengths and weaknesses are documented, as well as strategies adopted to improve one's performance and effectiveness.

  15. In hiring personnel, an emphasis should be placed on candidates who are open-minded, willing to consider constructive criticism, and having a low level of ego-involvement in their work and relationships. During the probation period, special steps should be taken to verify these qualities.

Obviously, excellent planning and well-designed staff development in critical thinking could play a significant part in making these policies a practical reality. It is doubtful that significant changes in the thinking of an organization can take place without excellent planning, long-term commitment, and expertise in such a shift. As Stephen Covey (1992) puts it:

I have long advocated a natural, gradual, day-by-day, step-by-step, sequential approach to personal development. My feeling is that any product or program - whether it deals with losing weight or mastering skills - that promises "quick, free, instant, and easy" results is probably not based on correct principles.

Peter Senge (1990) puts it this way:

Recognizing that most new ideas in American management get caught up in the dynamics of the fad cycle leads to some sobering questions. What if the time required to understand, apply, and eventually assimilate the new capabilties suggested by a "new idea" is longer than the fad cycle itself? If organizations have an "attention span" of only one or two years (some might say one or two months), is it impossible to learn things that might require five or ten years? (p. x)

In any case, whether an organization is or is not open to significant change, our first responsibility must be to the integrity of our own lives as persons and thinkers. We serve others best by being true to ourselves. We must play the most positive role we can play in any organization of which we are a part, but when rigidity sets in, the most positive role we can play may be to leave and go our separate way.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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