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 correctflexible 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.
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? Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.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.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
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.
More articles on Devious Political Tactics:
- Devious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
- Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This
excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears
to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: V
- When someone at work exhibits narcissistic behavior, others respond. Some respond by accommodating the
behavior, and those accommodations can include special and favorable treatment of the person behaving
narcissistically. That's one place where trouble can begin.
- Career Opportunity or Career Trap: II
- When an opportunity seems too good to be true, it might be. Although we easily decline small opportunities,
declining an enticing career opportunity can be enormously difficult. Here's Part II of a set of indicators
that an opportunity might actually be a trap.
- Answering Questions You Can't Answer
- When someone asks an unanswerable question, many of us respond by asking for clarification. That path
can lead to trouble. Responding to a question with a question can seem defensive, or worse. How can
you answer a question you can't answer?
- On Gratuitous Harshness
- Rejecting with gratuitous harshness the contributions of others can be an expensive pattern to tolerate
— or to indulge. Understanding how the costs arise and what factors exacerbate them is the first
step to controlling the pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info