Sunday, 14 August 2011

Categorical Reasoning

A huge white tom cat walked purposefully past the postman and into my house, as I opened the door to sign for a delivery.   I’ve never seen it before.   It is a striking creature, with one green and one blue eye, a nose bent like a boxer’s and vast paws.  From the moment it arrived it behaved as though it has always lived here – it settled for a snooze in an armchair, climbed onto my son’s lap as he was playing on the PS3 (much to my son’s distress as it lost him a game, although the grateful feline purrs perhaps made up for this) and affectionately entwined itself round my ankles when it saw me open the fridge.  It got me to thinking about behaviour, the signs we give off and the impact we can have on others…

Like the cat, we can create a good first impression (firm handshake (but not too firm), appropriate eye contact, respect for personal space, etc…).  I am mindful of the fact that I am quite a strong and colourful character, who enjoys playing with words, and hence I need to take care not to overwhelm people on first meeting, or indeed in any meeting.  Also it is all too easy to assume that others share your values, approach and outlook.  I have an ongoing debate with my mother who is a keen naturalist and assumes that everyone else should feel as passionately as she does about the countryside.  She was horrified when some new arrivals to her village ripped out the old hawthorn hedge that surrounded their property and planted laurels.  I suspect that they did it because they live beside a busy road and they want privacy – once grown the laurels will provide a year-round screen.  There is no indication from their home or garden that they are concerned about local flora, fauna or conservation.  Neither my mother nor I have actually asked them why they have replaced their old hedge.  

It is worth taking time to get to know a person and to understand what motivates and inspires them – you can then determine the most effective manner in which to communicate with them.  Often, the reason that a person expresses a different viewpoint from your own is because they have a different agenda or objectives or they are privy to information that you are not yet aware of.  It is important to make decisions based on facts rather than opinions.  To win someone round to your way of thinking you usually need to have an appreciation of their beliefs and outlook.   Despite the current arguments doing the rounds on the internet, claiming that President Obama’s popularity is declining due to his consistently altering his approach and policies, I am firmly of the belief that people should not be afraid of changing their minds, provided that there is sufficient factual evidence to justify doing so.  As Leonardo da Vinci stated:

               “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Critical thinking is a key leadership skill. Effective leaders must be able to determine what is pertinent information and hence make sound judgements, basing their decisions and actions on the evidence available.  It is important to be able to distinguish between facts, opinions and assumptions.

·         Facts are hard evidence

·         Opinions are personal, subjective statements based on individual beliefs

·         Assumptions are suppositions or ideas that provide explanations for circumstances in which all of the facts are not available or have yet to be determined – they are often based on meanings or interpretations that a person gives to the data available. 

The Ladder of Inference, defined in the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, 1994, is a useful illustration of the thinking process required to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown below:

1      Observable Data & Experiences (as a video recorder might capture it)
2      I select Data from what I observe
3      I add Meanings (cultural and personal)
4      I make Assumptions based on meanings I add
5      I draw Conclusions
6      I adopt Beliefs about the world
7      I take Actions based on my beliefs

NB Stages 2-6 are “the reflexive loop” (i.e. our beliefs affect what data we select next time)
Source: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, 1994

Most of the time, we make decisions without analysing how we get to them.  Dr. David Starkey’s extraordinary remarks during BBC2’s Newsnight on 12th August illustrate my point.  A number of the statements that he made were subjective observations (e.g. “the problem is that the whites have become black” and “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man.  If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white”).  To be fair to Dr. Starkey, he was trying to comment on the choice of language and the gang culture that is demonstrated by some parts of society, however, the observations perhaps tell us more about Mr. Starkey’s own attitudes than shed light on the reasons behind last week’s riots.   

It is useful to apply The Ladder, even retrospectively, to determine whether a business decision has been properly thought through.  It can enable you to get back to actual facts and determine appropriate actions based on reality without skipping steps in the reasoning process.

As the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, 

                “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”

The white cat, having scrounged a piece of ham and some strokes, has now gone, leaving only a few white hairs to remind us of him.  It is easy to assume that he was a benign visitor gracing us with his presence, but his actions could just as easily be seen as those of a manipulative parasite.  I have given you the facts; you can draw your own conclusions...

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