A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 29th, 2014 by William

The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

“The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect” is the name given by Michael Crichton for a phenomenon that afflicts mass media–its unlimited, unearned credibility. According to Crichton, media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. He called it by this name because he once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles. His reasoning was that by using a famous name it would imply greater importance to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

According to Crichton, the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows: “You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

“In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

This then is The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. When it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is worth our time to read the newspaper or listen to a broadcast. Fact is they tell us what they want us to hear which, by the way, is totally independent of the biased reporting problem which is another story altogether. Crichton believes the only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia. One area where I think Crichton got it wrong is that he believes it does not apply to other arenas in life. His point being that in ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. I would tend to disagree with Crichton on this one. I believe that The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is alive and well in everyday life and especially in the workplace.

From the workplace perspective, my reasoning is that for many organizations, the published values statement has much the same “effect” on employees–especially when those espoused values are not practiced. Employees read the statement, knowing that they are not followed, yet continue to delude themselves into believing that the organization’s management has the best of intentions. Why do people feel this way? First, the values statement in most organizations has morphed into something that management tries to use as a motivational tool instead of a roadmap for behavior. The big problem is that for most organizations the values statement changes nothing in how they conduct their business. The exercise of crafting them is a complete waste of time and talent if values statements are used for anything other than an exercise at a management off-site meeting.

But preach the values they do. Just as Crichton’s reasoning was to use a famous name to imply greater importance to The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, companies that don’t follow their values are the ones that preach them the loudest–trying desperately to attribute more importance to them.

To fully understand The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect it is first relevant to understand the definition of amnesia. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary amnesia is; 1) the loss of memory due usually to brain injury, shock, fatigue, repression, or illness; 2) a gap in one’s memory, or; 3) the selective overlooking or ignoring of events or acts that are not favorable, or useful, to one’s purpose or position.” The third definition is the one that best describes the effect in the workplace when it comes to whether the cherished values are followed.

“The selective overlooking, or ignoring, of events or acts that are not favorable or useful to one’s purpose or position” is the essence of the effect in action in the workplace. It applies and is relevant because everyone in an organization wants to believe that the values preached are in fact practiced, yet they ignore the fact that no one is really “living the values.” when they know in their heart they are not being followed. Question: Does your workplace preach work-life balance yet expect 10+ hour days? Case closed.

The primary reason the values statement of most organizations fail to drive more ethical behavior is management’s naiveté. Management easily forgets that compliance isn’t achieved by edict−that simply stating and publishing the values statements doesn’t guarantee they will be practiced. A more profound reason why they don’t work is simply that management flat out doesn’t practice them, or just as bad, practices them in a cyclical manner, e.g., management begins every quarter preaching teamwork, good communication, growing the business, building strong relationships among employees, work-life balance, etc. but by the end of the quarter, when their financial targets are missed, they’re back to the “command and control,” micromanaging, workaholic rhetoric.

This is why the values statement can actually be a “motivational delusion,” or, in this case, “motivational amnesia.” The amnesia being that despite management writing and publishing a good values statement, everyone will selectively ignore the fact that the values preached are not followed. And (the worst part) is that the employees know this yet continue to believe what management says–they drink the collective Kool-Aid.

The values statement is supposed to be the moral, ethical and behavioral qualities that the organization considers worthwhile−their highest behavioral priorities and deeply held principles. Values statements should be affirmations of how the people in the organization already value customers, suppliers, and most importantly how they already interact with each other. Thus the values that an organization demonstrates are most important then all the other buzzwords (trust, accountability, teamwork etc.) combined and are what drive an organization to be either functional or dysfunctional and why, when they are not practiced, they are so damaging motivationally.

However, if an organization’s values are realistic and practiced by all, especially at the very top, they provide a sense of organizational identity and unity. In fact if they’re practiced they don’t really need to be written down. An organization such as that will have trust, teamwork and a sense of common purpose, thus molding a fundamentally ethical culture within the organization.

This then becomes the essence of determining an organization’s functionality versus dysfunctionality. That’s a tall order for a simple wish list, and for most organizations, that’s all these statements ever really are. Unfortunately due to The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect people end up drinking the Kool-Aid and believing something that is patently false.

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