Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 6;   February 11, 2004: Decision-Making and the Straw Man

Decision-Making and the Straw Man

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.

Natalie interrupted Geoff. "I don't think that's a realistic approach at all. Even if we had the budget, we don't have time to hire thirty people."

Geoff was now on defense. "I never suggested that — I said that to make the scheduled date would require thirty more people. Hiring is probably the worst way to get there."

Playing defense, Geoff's task is not only to make his original point, but also to remove the distortions that Natalie has introduced into the debate by using a technique called the Straw Man fallacy.

Two straw men

Straw men. These huge straw men were set up in 2010 to welcome the Tour de France cycling race which went through Lautrec. Image (cc by ND 2.0) by Robin Ellis.

To use Straw Man, you state your partner's position in a form that's easy to refute. Then you refute your restatement of it, often by showing that it has unacceptable implications.

Most of us use Straw Man from time to time. It's so common that we rarely notice it. Here are some indicators that your partner may have used Straw Man.

A sense of frustration
Feelings of frustration during debate can arise from many possible sources, but check for Straw Man first.
Someone characterizes your position
Your partner characterizes your position, and you have little or no opportunity to critique the characterization before the process of drawing extremely undesirable inferences has begun.
Absolute language
The Straw Man fallacy
is so common that
we rarely notice it
In the characterization of your position, nuances and qualifications are removed, and an absolutist version of your position emerges. Words like every, nobody, all, none, always, never, forever, 100%, completely, and so on are good indicators.
I never said…
If you feel the need to clarify, or to deny that you said something, there's a good chance that your partner has used Straw Man.

If the user of Straw Man prevails, success might be based not on the strength of the argument, but on a distorted premise. And anything constructed on that basis is more likely to be wrong. To manage this risk, be prepared to deal with the Straw Man fallacy when it appears.

Educate
Make sure that everyone understands the Straw Man fallacy, how it works, and what it costs.
Notice characterizations
When you notice that someone's position is being characterized, speak up. Before the implications begin to flow, ask for discussion of the characterization, and gain agreement that it's fair and complete.

When we use Straw Man in the decision-making context, we typically intend to eliminate something from the list of candidates so that the group will choose one of the other options. This is a setup for tragedy. If the ploy works, we will have chosen that option not by comparing it to the options we do have, but to distortions of them. And we will have built our decision on a foundation of straw. Go to top Top  Next issue: Resuming Projects: Team Morale  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on the Straw Man fallacy, see D. Walton, "The Straw Man Fallacy," in Logic and Argumentation J. van Bentham, et. al., ed. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1996. Available at io.uwinnipeg.ca/~walton/96straw.pdf.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenkGyRKDtcWBHzrYEHner@ChaczEDhBaXluoxTzbsxoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Hard at WorkThe Tweaking CC
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
A bumper stickerEmail Happens
Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)A Guide for the Humor-Impaired
Humor can lift our spirits and defuse tense situations. If you're already skilled in humor, and you want advice from an expert, I can't help you. But if you're humor-impaired and you just want to know the basics, I probably can't help you either. Or maybe I can...
A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
The Challenge vs. Skill diagram, showing the "Flow" regionTop 30 Indicators That You Might Be Bored at Work
Most of the time, when we're bored at work, we know we are. But sometimes, we're bored and we just don't realize it. Here are some indicators of boredom that might escape some people's notice.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The road to Cottonwood Pass, ColoradoComing April 24: Big, Complicated Problems
Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)And on May 1: Full Disclosure
The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbreniVqcAwlIIqoSWNhOner@ChacQhiGNUkcFzUykyonoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.