Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Here’s a proposition for you to consider: 99% of all human social problems are the result of two or more groups of people holding different opinions, with each group lending no credence whatsoever to the others’. This happens almost constantly in life, and – unsurprisingly but almost always unrecognized – almost constantly in business.

Let’s just briefly consider the politically charged world of civil rights, where this precept is most often seen. I’m not going to make this about civil rights, mind you – this is just an illustration. Most civil rights arguments boil down to one side who’s fighting for a particular right, and another side that doesn’t want to grant it. “We should have the right to an equal vote!” says the one side; “No, you absolutely should not!” says the other. Each side alleges things about the other side’s ulterior motives and so on, but, in almost every case, both sides refuse to recognize any legitimacy of the other side.

And it’s important to realize that, from their own perspectives, each side does have a perfectly legitimate argument. The problem with these situations is that there’s no physical, evidence-based set of facts that we can rely on to bring the two perspectives together. For example, a “we deserve the vote!” side usually makes perfectly good arguments about Equal Protection and other legal principles, all of which are only useful if you accept the underlying philosophical basis of those legal principles, which the opposing side usually does not. When you’re arguing philosophy all the way down to turtles, that is, nobody’s inherently right or wrong. The side that wins is usually the side that can convince the most supporters to adopt the same philosophical basis.

Let’s take an absurd example, just to show the contrast. The idea that murder is wrong and punishable is pretty universal in human society, but it has no basis in fact. There’s no hard, demonstrable element of the universe that makes murder incorrect. It’s wrong because we, as philosophical beings, believe that it is wrong. But beliefs are never 100% universal; there are obviously people on the planet who do not believe that murder is wrong. Because they are a tiny minority, their worldview does not hold sway, and they’re punished when they’re caught.

Anyway, the same thing happens in business. We like to think that business is all about facts, numbers, and evidence, but it isn’t. Businesses are run by people, and people are a problem. People have beliefs, and beliefs can always be disputed. You may believe that Windows is a perfect OS for a given situation, but someone else can believe just as fervently that Linux is the better choice. Barring any incontrovertible proof to the contrary, neither of you is wrong, and neither of you are right. Because business is allegedly about facts, we tend to try and assemble facts to support our position. Windows has a lower cost. Linux is cheaper to acquire. Windows is prettier. Linux automates more easily. Windows has more bugs. Linux has more bugs. Whatever.

The problem is that the argument rarely derives from facts, and facts will not help solve it. Instead, it’s important to acknowledge the other side’s perspective. You might say, “well, he only wants Windows because he doesn’t know Linux, and he’s afraid to change.” That problem is, when we tend to say stuff like that, we tend to be very denigrating about it. “He’s afraid to change” is an extremely legitimate position, and you might well object if you were being asked to change.

Sometimes you have to acknowledge that there cannot be an indisputably correct position. That is, if you don’t have a clear moral majority, and you don’t have strong facts at hand, then it’s entirely possible that nobody’s right. In those cases, you end up making arbitrary choices, often based on thin evidence, minor points, flawed logical arguments, and so on. Instead, it might actually be healthier to just admit all around that there’s no inherently “correct” choice, and just flip a damn coin.

Now look – I’m not implying in any way that things like civil rights should be decided by a coin toss. Those are very high-stakes decisions compared to choosing a technology for a business, and those issues are very correctly decided by a majority that shares a common philosophical basis like, “all [people] are created equal.” But I do think it’s important to realize that civilized humanity has a hardwired penchant for failing to acknowledge the other sides’ perspectives, or the internal legitimacy of those perspectives. Simply “winning” does not make underlying problems any better. So when you are in a lower-stakes situation like choosing a technology, deciding on office cubicle assignments, or whatever else, take the opportunity to really embrace the “other” point of view. Acknowledge its legitimacy, and the fact that the universe can simultaneously contain multiple conflicting viewpoints without crashing. Even when someone else’s perspective is reprehensible to you, you should try and acknowledge it’s legitimacy to those who hold it, and the fact that your worldview is likely just as reprehensible to them. Strive instead to find common ground, and to openly acknowledge your fundamental disagreements. Put them on the  table honestly and candidly. Admitting our differences is the best way to work together.

One thought on “Get Some Perspective

  1. I can be guilty of this from time to time, but I try to remind myself – “I can be right, or I can be effective.” There are many ways to tackle a problem, tell a story, or achieve a result – just because “your” process is different from mine doesn’t make it wrong – just different.

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