An aphorism is a concise statement widely believed to be valid, and often quoted. Aphorisms are a little more credible than adages, probably less widely quoted, and usually less clever. But the two are only subtly different, and one person's adage might well be another's aphorism.
Aphorism or adage, though, they're probably all wrong if you think carefully enough. Here are a few examples that cause mischief at work.
- There's an exception to every rule
- Let's assume this one is true. Then, since the statement itself is a rule, an exception must exist, and therefore there exists a rule that has no exceptions. Since that contradicts the original rule, the statement must be false.
- What goes around comes around
- The idea here is that there is absolute justice in the world — that if you do right (wrong), then right (wrong) will eventually come back to you. This is simply wishful thinking. The world is way more random than that, and bad guys often go unpunished. There is some justice, but it's imperfect.
- Too many cooks spoil the broth
- This one is the basis of a belief that beyond a certain maximum number of "decision-makers," failure is inevitable. Even allowing that the maximum number might be task-dependent, this belief is often used to exclude the powerless from decisions. That's tragic, because in the real world, from science to banking to politics, people outside the dominant group are often the greatest innovators.
- Many hands make light work
- Maybe this is true when we're haying or cleaning dairy barns or picking apples, but it probably isn't true when we're writing software or designing a political campaign or performing brain surgery. Knowledge work is different.
- If it ain't broke, don't fix it
- Aphorism or adage — they're
probably all wrong if you
think carefully enough
- The problem here is the definition of "broke." In the modern workplace, most products, processes, and policies do function well, and most also have defects. The acceptability of their performance is subjective. The question is whether the likely benefits of improvement are worth the risk.
- You can't teach an old dog new tricks
- We use this belief to justify exclusion or termination of older, more experienced employees — if we want to. But when we're looking for a high-value executive or key contributor, we insist on hiring only the most experienced people who have done something similar before. You can't have it both ways.
- Never trouble trouble 'til trouble troubles you
- This piece of advice is a cousin of "Ain't Broke," but it's more specific. It allows that some things are broken, but if they don't harm you directly, it's best to let them go. In this modern, tightly networked world, waiting for trouble to trouble you directly could be a losing strategy.
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For more about the painting, Declaration of Independence, see the article by David McCullough, "An Icon's Secret: How John Trumbull's revered depiction of July 4, 1776, mixes fiction and fact." In The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2007; Page P1.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Currying Favor
- The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though —
it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- Exasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail
- When people relate stories at work, what seems important to one person can feel irrelevant to someone
else. Being subjected to one irrelevant detail after another can be as exasperating as being told repeatedly
to get to the point. How can we find a balance?
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- Conversation Despots
- Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others
want. Here are some of their tactics.
- Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical,
even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.