A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
January 7th, 2015 by William

The Idols of the Theater

Francis Bacon was a late 16th and early 17th century English statesman, essayist and philosopher. One his most famous and influential books was titled Novum Organum that he published in 1620. The title translates as “The New Instrument” and its purpose was to lay out a whole new way of coming to know about the world–a method that would be based on direct observation, empirical data, and testing, etc., rather than just on our perceptions of the world. Through this work and others, Bacon is generally considered to be one of the early originators of what we now refer to as “the scientific method.”

In Novum Organum he presents what he called the idols, or false images, of the mind. He described these as the human mindsets which obstruct the path of correct scientific reasoning. He did not mean these idols in the sense that they are symbols to be worshipped, but rather that they describe the “fixations” we all have in our minds that we have about things (our reality), and our ways of doing things. To Bacon his four “Idols of the Mind” represent the mindsets that keep us from accurately grasping the obvious. Bacon’s Idols of the Mind are described as:

• Idols of the Tribe: This is the human tendency to perceive more order and regularity in systems than truly exists, and is due to our tendency to follow our preconceived ideas about things. Some of Bacon’s examples are our tendency to trust our senses, which he claimed are inherently dull and easily deceivable. Another Idol of the Tribe is our tendency to discern (or even impose) more order in phenomena than is actually there. This equates to the normalcy bias I talked about in my post “Firm Grasp of the Obvious.”

• Idols of the Cave: This is due to our personal weaknesses in reasoning due to our particular personalities, likes and dislikes. These are our cognitive biases that vary from individual to individual. They reflect the peculiar distortions, prejudices, and beliefs that we are subject to which result from our different backgrounds, childhood experiences, education, training, gender, religion, social class, and workplace experiences. In other words, The Idols of the Cave are the result our lifelong environment has had on us.

• Idols of the Marketplace: This is due to our use of language and in taking some words to have a different meaning than their common usage. The problem has less to do with common speech and more to do with the special vocabularies, and jargons we use in our day-to-day interaction with others. Remind you of something? This explains the buzzword mentality that’s pervasive throughout the business world. In the end this really represents our inability to effectively communicate with each other. It’s why effective communication is one of the hardest habits to establish in most workplaces.

• Idols of the Theatre: This is our propensity to follow certain dogmas and not ask questions about the world. The Idols of the Theatre explain the fact that all organizations develop mesmerizing structures of rules and regulations–I touched on this last week in my post, “TEGWAR.”

Bacon asserts that all these “idols” together form our world view and become the lens through which we perceive and interpret everything in our world. Bacon claims that we all do this–we all interpret the world through the lens of our own narrow world view. And to reinforce this we all tend to believe other people are doing this more than we’re doing it ourselves. Bacon’s point in all this is that we should become aware of how these world views shape and distort our perceptions of the world so that we might be able to correct for them. The Idols are the reason Bacon prescribed a method of analyzing realty based on direct experience, empirical data, and testing, i.e., The Scientific Method.

In this post I’d like to focus on Bacon’s “Idols of the Theatre” as it falls in line with last week’s post (TEGWAR) which touched on the effect that the organization has on our individual behaviors. Why did Bacon refer to organizations as “theatre?” Bacon would defend his use of the term “theatre” by defining typical organizations as “false superstructures raised on false foundations, and in the end systems barren of merit parading their grandeur on the stage of the world.” That sounds like many a workplace I’ve been involved with–how about you?

Eric Kessler, in his 2001 article, “The Idols of Organizational Theory: From Francis Bacon to the Dilbert Principle,” which is published in the Journal of Management Inquiry, makes the case that Bacon’s “Idols of the Theatre,” actually represent sources of idiocy that exist in modern organizations. They are the dysfunctional consequences of the bureaucratic theatre that is organizational life. Examples might be, excess reliance on an oppressive system of rules and procedures, allowing sub-goal performance, getting mired down with conflicting interests (e.g., truly understanding core-competency), and of course self-centered behaviors which lead to organizational tension, i.e. the free for all political atmosphere present in all modern-day organizations.

According to Kessler, it’s the formal structures of organizations that reflect the “myths of their institutional environment rather than the demands of their technologies and core activities.” In other words organizations structure themselves not in a manner that supports their products and customers but which supports their egos and self-centered needs for power. Sound familiar?

Kessler also includes misguided reward systems, i.e., the perverseness of many performance appraisal systems that actually “lead people to poor performance,” as a contributor to the “theatre atmosphere” prevalent in most organizations. He also touched on what he called “the larger theatre,” or the inter-organizational institution environment. His claim is that the theatre atmosphere is because of extreme isomorphism–a process that “forces one unit to resemble others through coercive, mimetic, or normative pressures.”

At the micro-level this explains the Fiefdom Syndrome in which all departments in an organization will mimic each other and behave in a manner that forces everyone in the organization to behave in kind. At the macro-level it explains why the latest management leadership fads gain a foothold and spread from one organization to the other. It also explains why the same basic elements of dysfunction can be found from one organization to another–i.e., they all mimic each other.

Kessler makes the case that much of the dysfunctional idiocy represented in Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip is real–something anyone who works in a dysfunctional workplace knows. Kessler’s point is that this dysfunctionality arises from the idiocy that’s the result of our dependence on Bacon’s Idols of the Mind.

The takeaway from Kessler’s article and Bacon’s Novum Organum is that the typical logic, or modus operandi, that permeates all organizations is, as I’ve explained in many past posts, the selfish seeking of what’s best for each individual, versus what is best for the company as a whole. To break free of dysfunction an organization needs to embrace The Idols of the Mind as real and manage accordingly. Breaking free of the Idols will stymy the Dilbertesque idiocy that begets dysfunction.

If your workplace is caught up in dysfunctional idiocy, there’s some consolation in knowing that Bacon has verified that organizations in the 1600s apparently weren’t much different than today’s organizations. And therein lies the real problem–we have never learned from the past and are thus always doomed to repeat it. As Kessler would tell us it’s the isomorphism of organizations–the macro environment–that reinforces the Idols. And that sadly will never change unless we each take action. For each of us maybe it’s time we start thinking about the micro environment and fixing what’s inside the box, i.e., eliminating our own personal Idols of the Mind.

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