The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

The social gadflyWhen studying business, there is little time for critical reflection on what has been learnt. Newly minted MBAs are armed with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Generic Strategies and other tools to solve business problems. Their acceptance as valid tools is, however, often not based on critical reflection or solid empirical research but on mythical stories of how they were used successfully in the past.1 The study of business and most of writing about business is based on the case method. In this system, students are presented with a business problem and placed in the shoes of the decision maker charged with solving the problem.

In the Critical Perspectives on Management course, Rolf Strom-Olsen advocates an approach that deviates from the standard case methods and draws from the more critical humanities. He sees the life of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as a signpost for a different way to think about business.

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His writings form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact profoundly influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the market place in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?” to find the foundations of what we hold to be true. The Athenians themselves compared him with a gadfly, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock. A lifetime annoying people by questioning everything they know is, in the words of Rolf, not a way to Win Friends and Influence People. Socrates thus paid the highest price for his life as a social gadfly—he was convicted of drinking a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my experience, it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career suicide. For me, following the Socratic path has helped me to be very successful in solving business problems. Only by daring to ask the hard questions and draw from disciplines outside business we can see perspectives on issues that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the analytical method from the humanities allows us to draw from entirely different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social science, and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

The Lucid Manager is courageous and not afraid to be a social gadfly. The Lucid Manager stops asking “Why?” (go beyond The Five Whys if needed) and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates teaches the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success. Following the path of Socrates will help you to develop those cherished innovative solutions.

  1. See my earlier blog post on the classification of business theories

Organisational culture and the risks of normality

Organisational culture and the risks of normality“We need to change our organisational culture!” one of the board members said. Everybody around the table nodded, and the secretary noted yet another action in the board minutes. The CEO would now be charged with changing the culture of the organisation.

Nobody knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change. Because nobody knew what had to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like a great idea. Not that anyone had any idea what culture is, but judging by some of the inspiring articles in Harvard Business Review it seemed the best way to go.

Soon enough a consultant was hired and the work to transform the organisation began. Meetings were held and a range of new values, based on a nice list of abstract nouns, was defined. Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you are either with us and subscribe to these values, or you are an enemy of the organisation. Employees that are critical of the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard, indicating that deviance from normality was from now on scorned upon. Thus began the new world order.

forcing normality destroys excellence and innovation

What the consultant did not realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is a repression of spontaneity and destroys sources of excellence and innovation. When organisations force their employees in the same value pattern and no longer accept any deviance, an important source of improvement and innovation is killed.

Positive organisational deviance is a necessary condition for innovation and improvement to thrive. Only by nurturing those that think differently are organisations able to become remarkable.

The Importance of Cynicism: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

The cynic is the guard dog of management.Cynicism has a bad name in management and some even call it a “cancer in your organisation”. In my view, most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in corporations.1

The word Cynic is derived from the ancient Greek word for dog. The cynic might be a dog but is certainly not a lapdog. The cynic can be the guard dog for organisations. Philosophical cynicism rejects conventional social values, such as business hierarchies. The cynic is thus able to reflect on business practices from an external perspective and positively contribute by pointing out things that might not be visible to their superiors. Cynicism is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.

Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert that uses many buzzwords without substance or the critic who is quick to find fault with anything, without themselves performing but tend to deliver the goods. Cynics often exasperate upper management by always questioning everything.  More often than not, however, they do know what is going on.2 Cynicism can help people ensure that others don’t take advantage of them, and potentially help organisations benefit from resistance to potentially dangerous decisions3. In one experiment, participants cynical toward the employing organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.

Not all cynicism is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynicism: affective, cognitive and behavioural. In other words, you can be cynical as an emotional reaction, such as irritation, tension and anxiety. When you are cognitively cynical, you think that your organisation is run by self-interest and when you are behaviourally cynical, you display that attitude in how you perform at work.5  The most productive type of cynicism is the cognitive type—the cynic as the devil’s advocate.

My advice is to listen to cynics in your organisation. Find out what is bothering them and learn from these experiences.

  1. Dean Jr, J.W., Brandes, P. & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review (23) 341–52. 

  2. Carlini, J. (1996). A trustworthy cynic. Network World, 13(42), 70–70. 

  3. Naus, F., van Iterson, A. & Roe, R. Value incongruence, job autonomy, and organisation based self-esteem: A self-based perspective on organisational cynicism. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 2007b, 16, 195–219. 

  4. Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469. 

  5. Kim, Tae-Yeol, Bateman, Thomas S., Gilbreath Brad and Andserson, Lynne M. (2009). Top management credibility and employee cynicism: A comprehensive model. Human Relations 62(10), 1435–1458. DOI: 10.1177/0018726709340822

Management’s New Clothes: The Magic of the Business Suite

Management's new clothesThe manager in his or her suit has become an archetype in professional life around the globe. Even at international meetings, where people of various cultures gather, managers all wear the same type of clothing, only displaying minor variations in style and colour.

Business suits have of course no practical purpose, but rather convey social meaning. The suit has become a symbol of power, and a means to demarcate the white from the blue collars. Using clothes and other objects to communicate meaning to other people is a natural aspect of being human. An immutable law of marketing is that we don’t buy stuff for what it does, but for what it means.

Early in my career, I was working on a dredging site in Bangladesh, wearing my comfy heavy metal t-shirt and jeans. I was unexpectedly asked to present to head office executives visiting from the Netherlands. Blissfully unaware of my lack of appropriate attire and ignoring their visible scepticism towards my expertise I was able to convince them of my recommendation.

It is of course not a secret that the relationship between the clothes we wear and our actual ability to be a good manager is not a necessary one. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who analysed human interaction from a theatrical perspective, wrote more than half a century ago:

People holding corporate positions are blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.1

In the field of consumer behaviour, the clothes we buy are often seen as the result of our lifestyle, demographics and other variables. Sociologists, however, have a reverse logic and see the clothes we wear as the cause of the behaviour. Research has confirmed that we use objects such as clothing to compensate for actual ability to act in a particular role.

It has been found that MBA students less likely to be successful in professional life (based on grade averages) are more likely to look the part.2

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that quite often the smartest people are portrayed in movies as eccentric, deviating from the expectations, but accepted because of their abilities.

Clothing as a means to communicate actual and aspired social status is part of what makes us human, and after my experience, I quickly learnt to adapt to the expectations of professional life. The best way to end this post is with the words of the bard:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts … (As You Like it).

  1. Erving Goffman (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life, Penguin, London. 

  2. Solomon, Michael R.: The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective, The Journal of Consumer Research 10(3), volume 10, 319–329, 1983. 

Positions Vacant: Deviant Behaviour is a Key Selection Criterion

Positions Vacant - Deviant Behaviour EssentialWould you like to work on the front lines of contemporary management?

The Lucid Manager is hiring, and we are looking for people that don’t fit the culture of their current workplace and have difficulty being aligned with corporate goals. At the Lucid Manager, we believe that the only thing you have to be brought into line with is yourself.

We acknowledge that deviant behaviour and taking calculated risks is the foundation of innovation. We, therefore, look for independent critical thinkers who can add value.

If this were a real recruitment add, it would have been a very odd one indeed. Most companies are looking for so called alignment and matching cultural values. At The Lucid Manager, we believe that this will lead to a severe lack of innovation.

The major corporate collapses and scandals of the recent years have caused a tightening of corporate governance, and many organisations have moved away from open models of leadership that value self-initiative to more regimented models of management.

Even though the western world is waging war to spread democracy around the globe, the one aspect that dominates most people’s lives, their workplaces, are ideally meritocracies but are mostly more like dictatorships. Most organisations are managed through clear hierarchical lines, and people are not very likely to go against the grain.

Research shows that employees do not only remain silent because of a fear of retribution but also because it is perceived as a waste of their time. This silence creates psychological tension and cognitive dissonance and eventually less commitment with organisational goals.1

Organisational deviance is, however, a major source of innovation. Without the freedom to make mistakes, there can be no learning. The current wave of tightened corporate governance leads to the silencing of dissenting voices and pruning of innovative actions. The ultimate consequence of this is the impoverishment of management practices.

  1. Detert, James R., Burris, E. R., & Harrison, D. A. (n.d.). Debunking four myths about employee silence. Harvard Business Review, 88(6), 26.