Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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 welcome

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

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

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 Devious Political Tactics:

Malibu beach at sunsetFailure Foreordained
Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance. But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?
A hot dog with mustard on a bunCounterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II
In knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior takes on forms that can be rare or unseen in other workplaces. Here's Part II of a growing catalog.
A hang glider pilot taking offTime to Let Go of Plan A
We had a plan. It was a good one. Our plan seemed to work for a while. But then troubles began. And now things look very bleak. But people can't let go of the plan. For some teams in this situation, there isn't a Plan B. For others, Plan B is a secret.
The lies inside the truthOn Reporting Noncompliance
Regulating compliance with process design in organizations requires monitoring process usage. Typically, process monitors depend on reports from process participants. In blame-oriented cultures, fear of retribution can limit what these reports contain.
A vague and unreadable diagramIncoherent Initiatives
Mission statements of organizational initiatives serve as recruiting instruments as advocates seek support for their missions. When advocates compromise coherence of mission to maximize the depth and breadth of support, trouble looms.

See also Devious Political Tactics and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post 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!
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.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.