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Volume 23, Issue 7;   February 15, 2023: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior

Four Razors for Organizational Behavior


Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices.
Stained Glass of William of Ockham in a church in Surrey, England, United Kingdom

Stained Glass of William of Ockham in a church in Surrey, England, United Kingdom. He is the scholar to whom is attributed the "law of parsimony," better known as Occam's Razor. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported by Moscarlop, courtesy Wikimedia.

A razor, in philosophy, is a maxim or principle that one can use to focus arguments and attention on avenues of thought. Razors generally guide thinking along lines that are most likely to prove fruitful. Perhaps the razor most widely recognized is Occam's razor: When searching for explanations of observed phenomena, the simpler explanations are more likely to be correct. But we can find razors beyond the realm of philosophy. In software development, for example, there is this: When a subsystem crashes unexpectedly, check for an unexpected input.

In human systems, razors have been used to help identify causes for undesirable behavior. Among these are:

  • Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
  • Heinlein (and erroneously, Napolean): Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

A general form for razors for organizational behavior

The general form of many razors in the field of human behavior is "Never attribute to X that which is adequately explained by Y." It reads simply and clearly enough, but the "never" it contains can make it difficult to accommodate. Humans, after all, are fiendishly clever. To allow for the odd situations that can arise I prefer this form:

It's risky to attribute to X that which is adequately explained by Y.

This form allows for some flexibility. You can follow the razor's advice most of the time, while recognizing that sometimes you must accept the risk and attribute to X that which is adequately explained by Y.

Four razors for organizational behavior

With that Perhaps the razor most widely recognized is Occam's Razor:
When searching for explanations of observed phenomena,
the simpler explanations are more likely to be correct
flexible format in mind, I offer for your consideration these four razors for organizational behavior. In what follows I use the name Blair (him or her) to refer to the person whose behavior we're trying to explain.

It's risky to attribute to Malice that which can be explained by Incompetence.
The risk of attributing behavior to malice when incompetence would suffice is that it leads you to overestimate Blair's capacity to pursue her objective. That overestimate leads you to respond disproportionately. For example, if she lacks competence, your response can be milder and more accommodating than it would be if she were malicious.
It's risky to attribute to Incompetence that which can be explained by Ignorance.
Blair's ability to perform depends to some extent on knowledge acquired from education, training, or experience. Ignorance — lack of knowledge — can compromise performance in ways that are difficult to distinguish from incompetence. The response to incompetence is rather drastic — something like reassignment or replacement. The response to ignorance is less drastic — training or education. The risk of attributing Blair's poor performance to incompetence is that it requires that you take the more drastic action first.
It's risky to attribute to Ignorance that which can be explained by Greed.
When we attribute misbehavior to ignorance, our response is focused on Blair's education. When we attribute Blair's misbehavior to greed, our response is to act so as to limit Blair's ability to engage in deviant acquisitive action. The risk of misattribution in this case is that Blair's greed can harm the organization while we're busying ourselves try to educate her.
It's risky to attribute to Greed that which can be explained by Malice.
When malice is afoot, Blair's objective might not involve acquiring wealth or power. Indeed, he might be seeking an objective that could be self-destructive. Responding as if greed were the motive would suggest actions that protect against deviant acquisition. Responding as if malice were the motive would suggest actions that protect targets against more general kinds of harm. The greed response thus leaves some people unprotected.

Last words

With Malice (M), Incompetence (Ic), Ignorance (Ig), and Greed (G), I've constructed four razors: M/Ic, Ic/Ig, Ig/G, and G/M. Eight more are also possible: M/Ig, M/G, Ic/M, Ic/G, Ig/M, Ig/Ic, G/Ig, and G/Ic. Contemplate these possible razors. What are their risks? Go to top Top  Next issue: The McNamara Fallacy  Next Issue

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