Philip Whiteley's Blog

August 26, 2014

Evidence is not enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:35 pm

We supposedly live in a scientific age; the continual complaint from many spokespeople in the scientific community is that religious belief holds us back from being thoroughly rational and modern.

But how rational are we? By ‘we’, I mean people, generally in society; and more pertinently, decision-makers in government, business and non-profit institutions. In the course of the past 15 years I’ve been writing articles and books on management and business; last winter I researched and advised on a major book on an occupational illness. In all of these inquiries – even when it involved industrial chemistry – I have discovered that absolute proof leading to an incontrovertible conclusion is a vanishingly rare phenomenon. Cognitive biases and cultural influences shape the way in which we prioritize, discuss matters and make decisions.

Ah but, the rationalists counter: by emphasising evidence and reason, at the very least we can minimize the corrosive influence of prejudice and superstition. Well, in practice, not necessarily so; indeed, even the reverse. This ‘rational’ approach is often accompanied by the conceit that we can avoid belief. Refusing to acknowledge tacit beliefs can result in excessive emphasis upon tenuous evidence, and complete refusal to acknowledge the existence of a rival body of knowledge.

In business management, there is now around 75 years of convincing evidence that employee engagement is important. But it has yet to have commensurate influence upon the analysis, reporting and decision-making within businesses, or have any influence at all upon the way in which employment legislation is drafted and debated. This is because of cultural beliefs, which are particularly fervently held by those who pride themselves on a rational devotion to maximizing returns for business.

One of the beliefs, on which I have written at length, (see also this blog) is that the wage cost is the sole or dominant part of the employment cost. In reality, it is dwarfed by the gains and losses of having the right skills, engagement and the best customer experience. This false belief is held on the left and right of politics, and results in wages being very much lower than they can or should be. It led to the absurd decision by a restaurant in the USA recently to put a 35 cent surcharge on bills after the state increased the statutory minimum wage.

So, if you want to be as rational as you can be, best first to understand those unspoken cultural beliefs that we all carry around with us, and look for evidence in unconventional places that might challenge or qualify them. Physician, heal thyself, as Jesus Christ once said. Sorry.

  • I will be involved in the launch of one of the most impressive recent books on enlightened leadership in business, called The Management Shift. The author Professor Vlatka Hlupic brings together all elements: Values, Evidence and Practice, in a comprehensive demonstration that all value ultimately resides in people and the way in which they are led. There is a holding website here – due for development in the next few weeks:

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