Archives for posts with tag: rationality

This well-known saying often attributed to French lawyer and politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, highlights the balancing act required of politicians in our society but the behaviour of some, begs the question;

Are they truly our representatives or do they dance to their own tune?

In a representative democracy, politicians are sent to parliament or congress to put forward the views and aspirations of the people who elected them but once there, they must make laws for all citizens and there is where the problems can begin.

In most countries, elections are only held every 3-4 years so there is an inevitable lag between voter intent and political action, yet in the 21st century, the mood of the public has never been more evident to those in power. There are polls almost daily that seek to take the temperature of the electorate and these have shown that in most Western nations, the broader public has consistently proven to be ahead of governments on key social and even geopolitical issues, so why it is that more than a few elected representatives seem to be actively pulling in the opposite direction?

The 2016 election ‘circus’ in the US was ample evidence of this phenomenon with some candidates putting enormous effort in to being as far from the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. rational thinking) as possible but it is also apparent in Australia at present, where polls indicate that an important civil rights issue due to be put before a national referendum will pass with a significant majority, yet a number of politicians have already announced they will vote against the proposal, even if the nation votes in favour of it.

In a country where voting is compulsory and participation is close to 100%, the intent of the people is rarely in doubt, so how does their personal agenda even warrant a mention?

Notwithstanding that post the next election these folks will likely be unemployed,  there is in their behaviour, a cautionary note for us all. The GFC has painfully brought home the lesson that when people are entrusted with our money or granted authority over us, we must actively take an interest in what they are doing and saying and if they seem to be acting in their own interests rather than ours, we must hold them accountable.

As the old Russian proverb goes: “Trust but verify”. To do otherwise is asking for trouble.

The message for leaders? Staying in touch with your customers and your people is critical. If you are not paying attention they may change direction and you will be left running after them, trying to figure out what went wrong…


A diversified and interdependent world brings with it many challenges – not so much with technology or medicine or engineering or food production but rather of ‘thought inertia’ or even active resistance.

As different cultures and beliefs encounter each-other there is inevitable friction. Fortunately these days it does not usually erupt into war but it can lead to a similar type of mental digging in.

This for me has also illustrated an interesting phenomenon. It seems for some people the more we understand about our condition, our biology, psychology and other elements of our make-up the more they want to retreat into the past or into belief systems that comfort them. This can lead to them singling out a group or organisation and claiming that they are somehow responsible for all manner of ills. (Gay marriage and ‘boat people’ seem to be the ‘threats du jour’ for these folks at present.)

The incredible achievements of humanity both in technological and sociological terms,  seems to threaten their view of the world and to be open minded or flexible in our thinking must somehow be branded as wrong, evil or even elitist! . For these people, scientific knowledge and evidence-based reasoning has ‘stolen their magic’.

They believe that everyone should think as they do and that they shouldn’t have to justify their beliefs-just holding them is good enough to demand action from the rest of us.

Of course we have seen this in the past when information was elusive, expensive and guarded.

Control was exercised by a small ruling minority, clan, religious or political group and they could direct their followers by controlling their beliefs.  This still happens today in some places (we call it talk radio) but for the most part, modern communication has rent the veil forever.

The young people of today are no longer satisfied with ‘…because I said so!” Politicians are held to much higher scrutiny that in the past and on a larger scale, despots can no longer hide behind borders; mobile phones with video have seen to that. (The Syrian regime is learning this at present.)

The democratisation of knowledge has created a powerful force and is something that begs us to question everything. In the 21st century, assertions need to be supported by evidence.

The development of critical thinking in children usually starts with Santa and the Easter Bunny. As children grow and learn, the concept of a ‘magic bunny that no-one can see’ or an old man who can visit every house in the world in 24hrs becomes a bit threadbare. Eventually reality intrudes and they either decide for themselves or put us on the spot with the big question… Beliefs like these are generally harmless and self-terminating on an individual level but others are not.

When our daughter comes home and relates a controversial assertion by a school mate or even teacher, we discuss how she could deal with it. Most often her response is to ask “How do you know” or “Can you prove what you say?”  Many times this is sufficient to prevent a reoccurrence but some people can’t let go or are unwilling to examine why they believe something.

Perhaps it is because from the time we are born, we are immersed in the culture of our immediate and extended family. As we grow up, our exposure to more and more outside sources of experience and information  means that we gradually develop our own view of the world, however, some people never escape. They continue believing the same things, voting the same way or following the same religion.

Even when we discover that what we thought was true is not or is no longer appropriate, we can struggle with feelings of guilt about changing. After all, how could those that raised and loved us be wrong? It can be traumatic.

In severe cases. the sense of loss when they realise that progress (knowledge, technology or science) has ‘stolen the magic’ is so great, they seek to reinvent it in another form. They seek a belief system or a ‘thought community’ that can give them certainty again-someone they can get guidance and confidence from but in order to join, they have to suspend critical judgement and this can lead to to some unhealthy outcomes. Cults thrive on these kinds of ‘lost’ individuals.

For many people, tightly adhering to a particular point of view can offer comfort by removing uncertainty and as diversity is welcomed in most places-what could be wrong with that?

In fact it is common to hear that  ‘You have to respect a person’s beliefs’. It seems that ‘belief or faith’ has been reinvented as a legitimate challenge to knowledge based on facts or best evidence.

To this I say; nonsense… We do not have to respect beliefs – some cultures hold that it is fine for a husband to beat his wife or for girls to be prevented from going to school – clearly things that in modern society are wrong and harmful. Beliefs are not sacred – however, in a democracy, we need to respect an individual’s right to hold them  provided that exercising them does not cause harm.  Suppressing a belief is not the way to educate people. When we do so, people can become convinced that something is wrong and we as leaders are not telling them the truth for some dark reason. In the absence of reason, odd beliefs can take hold because nature abhors a vacuum. Erroneous beliefs can only be countered by unfettered access to the facts, by purposeful questioning and by the passage of time.

As leaders in the workplace,  people look to us for guidance; they expect us to know what we are talking about and to be a steadying influence. That is why we must be active in honestly informing our people about our organisation and our industry and be open to questions and feedback, so that rumours and conspiracy theories don’t take hold-particularly in the tough times. Regular open honest communication can be a kind of vaccine for all manner of workplace ills because rumours and distortions can affect morale, share price, customer satisfaction and even the profitability of the organisation and once embedded can be very hard to eradicate because again – people love a good story.  On a macro scale we can see it regularly in the news media and it only gets worse when spread on the internet, if not actively exposed.

As Adolf Hitler noted in Mein Kampf, “…the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. “

Cases in point: the anti-vaccine movement that sprang up several years ago is an example of an evangelical fervour based on a falsehood and despite being thoroughly debunked and the perpetrator prosecuted; it still thrives on the Internet and in the minds of too many people. This is a case where a false ‘belief’ repeated often, has caused actual harm to our communities by allowing virtually eradicated diseases to re-emerge and threaten the lives of our children.

On a less serious note, the moon hoax believers have been convinced for years that NASA faked the moon landings. When confronted with irrefutable evidence they go on about conspiracies. When a lunar probe photographed the landing sites a few years ago even that didn’t convince them. Even the fact that since 1969, scientists from all over the world have been bouncing lasers of a special reflector left by Apollo 11 to measure the distance between earth and the moon doesn’t hold any sway with them. Perhaps NASA FEDEXed it there…

People are free to believe what they wish but it is when this turns into action that affects others we must have the courage to challenge them.

Too often we can be seduced by over simplistic thinking and by screaming headlines that engage the emotions but not our cerebral cortex. ‘Public outrage’ us usually based on incomplete information and that this succeeds so often is surprising when we have more sources of data at our fingertips than ever before.

As I tell my 3rd year University students- find at least 3 credible sources before you quote something that purports to be true. Otherwise you can fall victim to people with an agenda that may not be helpful.

As we have seen, humans are often easily swayed by a good story. Emotions can be roused to overwhelm rational thought. While this may be good at the movies-it is much more of a challenge in our workplace.

If you are not communicating honestly and often with your people, someone else will fill the vacuum…