Clear thinking in HRM

Here are ten of the most common paradigm paralyses – mistakes we can all make when thinking about a problem. It is necessary to keep these constantly in mind and consciously identify cases of false logic, until such time as it is natural for us to reason more effectively.

1.The Availability Heuristic: This was first identified by Tversky and Kahneman in 1973. Put simply, it refers to the tendency most of us have to evaluate something in terms of things that come easiest to mind. If a doctor, for instance, recently diagnosed two people with a rare disease, then they will tend to diagnose the same symptoms in their next patients. Tversky and Kahneman did the “K” test on a number of groups – by asking them whether there were more words that began with “k” than had “k” as the third letter in the word. The majority of people chose the first letter option, as they could immediately think of “kitchen”, “kite” etc. However, there are actually twice as many words in the English language with “k” as the third, rather an the first letter.

2. The Egocentric Construct of Reality: For most people the World is not around 24,000 miles in circumference, or thronged with nearly 8 billion people. It consists almost certainly of a single country, perhaps a city and maybe even just a single street. It is also made up essentially of immediate family and close friends and normally less than one hundred colleagues, cousins and acquaintances in an outer circle. Events can penetrate this world, but unless they endanger it, or greatly benefit it, they will be considered to have little fundamental importance. Thus reality consists of values and phenomenon that inhabit this world. Abstract concepts sit uncomfortably in its confines and all forms of negativity are generally avoided or gossiped out of existence. If someone within the circle, or a closely allied circle, is – for instance – attacked on the street by someone of a different race then the experience will be magnified into a general prejudice. Similarly, tragedies affecting others will only really matter if it is within the circle and not outside it. The egocentric reality is therefore always narrowly defined, distorted and never reliable in any objective sense and can be highly dangerous if it is allowed to determine the fate of others in the wider World around it.

3. The Immediacy Impulse: It is a well known phenomenon that middle-class parents have fostered what has become known as “delayed gratification” in their children. This is the ability to see beyond the immediate time, exam hurdles and privations along the way to a better time in the further distance. In earlier times leading educational institutions also bred into the offspring of the rich a notion of the ‘greater good”. That some otherwise unacceptable things had to be tolerated so that a “higher outcome” could be achieved or sustained. These values ended with the Millennial generation. Unfortunately, it also meant that there was no longer a need to be concerned with such things as historical context or the slow adaptability of people to change or strategic considerations – used by or against us. Things are thus judged in terms of immediate payback and narrow interests. One example of this is the reaction of many people to the 2020 pandemic lockdowns in Michigan, USA – leading to violent protests and threats in spite of the high number of deaths from the virus justifying the lockdown.

4.The Naturalistic Fallacy: This is a common tendency, first identified by the Philosopher Emmanuel Kant. It underpins many of the assumptions in religious morality, sociology and conventions of all kinds. The dislogic consists of assuming that what “is” the case, “should” be the case. In other words, if most people liked yellow roses, then it may be assumed that yellow roses were superior in some way. In fact, because something exists does not mean that it has some innate moral or practical superiority.  An example of this is the continued importance given to job interviews, even though other individual methods of recruitment selection actually produce better overall outcomes. Because every employer interviews, does not mean that interviews are some kind of imperative for HR professionals. Another example exists in distance learning. If a student has to watch a 30-minute film before answering some multiple choice questions to test comprehension, they may ask for a copy of thev film script, claiming they have some technical problems. If this is provided, they have an easier way to determine the multiple choice answers – rather than rely on notes or memory. They justify their request for the script by stating that other educational insitutions provide it – thus the involing the “naturalistic fallacy” claim of “because others do it – so should you”. 

5.Determinism: There is a pseudo-scientific assumption that the whole world is subject to “cause and effect”. However, even the most well proven scientific discoveries still contain degrees of uncertainty. If existence was deterministic then the fact that a child was abused, or lived in great poverty could readily be used to explain their phobias or criminality in later life. But there are numerous cases of perfectly psychological stable and honest people who had difficult childhoods.  To accept determinism is, in fact, to reject “free will”. Thus, everything anyone did could be ascribed to its inevitability rather than the responsibility of the individual. Instead of determinism it is far more effective to think in terms of probability. This allows for certain factors to be involved in producing an outcome, but only to a partial extent and virtually never in some single causal chain. In all cases, moreover, there is going to be a confidence limit for every relationship.  Even probability, however, can produce some odd results. If, for instance, every time it rained in Denver someone in Boston died of measles does not mean there is any link between those variables at all. For a link to exist there must be some pre-existing logical connection between the events. Tis may not be immediately obvious, but on investigation can generally be found.

6.Zero-Sum: Once again, a favourite mistake by “concrete thinkers”, such as those in the trade union movement, who like to divide all human experience into rigid categories – good/bad, practical/impractical, socialist/capitalist, us/them. A famous example of this thinking was that adopted by officials and MEPs during the drafting and debate about the EU Working Time Directive. It was argued that long working hours were correlated with stress and ill health at work. But no actual studies were undertaken to determine this and a maximum weekly working time figure was chosen, not by reference to scientific evidence, but an ancient ILO figure that itself was plucked out of the air.  Another favourite zero/sum approach to a problem is to declare that if something does not work perfectly, then it is better not to use it at all. A case in point is the use of the temperature check during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Because the check does not pick up all cases it was declared useless in many national guidelines on a return to work. However, if it picks up some cases, it is logically more use than if no test at all were used. If it picked up false negatives there may be a slight arguement in favour of it not being used. However, it would still pick up some people with a serious temperature-inducing illness and therefore be of value. 

7. Disproportionality: We have all felt irritated at times over small things in our lives, especially when what we intended backfires on us or we act when we are tired. But there is a more fundamental block to clear thinking that occurs when people lack a sense of what values, outcomes, means, methods, hopes and fears are truly important and what are relatively unimportant. This is so often the traditional administrator’s weakness – when they care more about whether a sub clause is in place than whether the whole document is drafted correctly. It is equally what the Philosopher Bertrand Russell meant when he said that many schools cared more about whether a pupil swore than if they undertook a cruel act. An important skill for the HR Manager is knowing what aspects of their job are key to the success of the business and what may merely have ritual meaning or are simply safe because they conform. The modern HR Professional is, above all, the one person in the management structure of a company (apart from the Chairman) who can step back and take a wider view. They are thus frequently the conscience of the organisation and they are able to be this because they maintain a finely tuned sense of proportionality.

8.The gambler’s perspective: Virtually all gamblers lose – some more than others. But in many ways, we are all gamblers – we take out insurance against lost luggage or ill health and decide one course of action rather than another by recalling how we last acted in similar situations. We know there is no guarantee of success, but we trust that experience helps to produce a desired outcome. However, the most common mistake people make when they bet in a casino, at the racetrack or in daily business life is that the same pattern of chance outcomes will not be sustained. For instance, if we roll a dice and come up with a six, three consecutive times, the gambler will assume that the chances of six appearing a fourth consecutive time will be reduced. But it is, in fact, exactly the same as all previous rolls of the dice. Each roll is a distinct activity and the chances of a particular number coming up are the same at each throw.

We all fall for the gambling fallacy in everyday life when we choose from available options. We do so usually in a total unconscious way – so it does not feel like a fallacy. Of course, the converse is also true – when people claim they have a “lucky number”. But actually, in most cases, that is less of a fallacy than the sequencing assumption – unless someone else knows your “lucky number” tendency and feeds that choice intentionally or gambles against it. Curiously the world’s most favoured numbers are 7,3 and 8, but they only jointly account for just under a quarter of personal favourites.  So that is not much help around a roulette – or collective bargaining – table.

9. The Berkson Paradox: This is a common error amongst many professionals who falsely believe they are operating in an objective and scientific way. It is the detection of a false negative correlation between two factors. For instance, that trade union activism is negatively correlated with career progress. It would seem to make sense because a person denied on opportunity may adopt negative attitudes or develop career aspirations in another institution (ie: a trades union).  However, in doing so, they overlook the trade union activists who lack career aspirations and are perfectly satisfied with the substance of thir job.  Moreover, there are many variables that have a negative correlation that may seem to signify something, but actually mean very little. For instance, if a company wishes to use recruitment consultants that are both inexpensive and high quality it may find that it can only have one criteria met.  Cheap consultants are low quality. But the review may be distorted because it excludes the the consultants that are both expensive and high quality and cheap and poor quality. Including these may lead the company needing consultants to reposition their thresholds.

10. The numerical evidence fallacy: Put simply, this works from the assumption that the more instances of an attestation that something happened the greater the weight that what was observed was true. Thus, an HR manager may receive seven complaints from separate female employees about claimed sexual harassment that implicates one male manager. The “prima facie” evidence of this would immediately look strong. However, the fact that all complaints are made at the same time might raise suspicions. Could these complaints be concerted? Could they be retaliatory? Might they relate to actions that would not really fall into the category of harassment?  In another example, a study of employee engagement may indicate a low level in a particular department, the department concerned is known to have a high employee turnover and low productivity level. Everything points to the relevant manager’s competence.  But what if the manager had encouraged staff to be “honest” in the survey? Had staff who were developed to be high flyers that left for opportunities elswhere?… and the manager had productivity problems because of high vacancy levels and poor quality residual staff who could not provide effective cover? In such a case we have a totally different picture of the manager concerned. 

Copyright: FedEE International Inc 2020