Friday, October 25, 2013

Institutionalizing Wisdom: uses of delay and obfuscation

We appreciate frankness from those who like us. Frankness from others is called insolence. -- Andre Maurois
One of the most popular myths of our democratic culture, The Frankness Rule, is that communication is almost invariably improved in a face-to-face encounter by frank, plain-speaking people. Such "transparency," such direct talk is supposed to avoid misunderstanding and therefore unnecessary conflict.

Given as an example justifying this belief in frankness is the hotline telephone conversation that occurred in October 1962 between President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev that brought about a resolution to the confrontation between US and Russian forces during the very scary Cuban missile crisis. What was overlooked was by all of us democracy-loving free-society afficionados was that this reconciliation was not presented for review to the general, diverse American public; or, even the Congress of the US. Nor did Kruschev ask the Russian people -- nor, I suspect, the general membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- for their "input."

(I remember the situation -- the little we knew of it -- well. I was a junior in college at the time and expected, as did most of my classmates, that that our nuclear incineration was imminent. We planned the most amazing good-bye party and were not completely ecstatic, although very relieved, to hear shortly later that the crisis had been resolved.)

What is overlooked by our happy harbingers of frankness is that direct confrontation can just as well exacerbate a deteriorating situation, unless a good deal of wisdom is brought to it.

It is a forlorn hope to expect that, as a commonplace, a good deal of wisdom will be exhibited in everyday life. So it is that organizational shields separate powerful decision makers from others like them in rival organizations. This not only protects the in-house leaders from exterior aggression, but buffers them from their own inadvertent, or rash missteps.

I was once hired as a headmaster of a private school whose board of directors, although publicly hail-fellows-well-met, were not infrequently in disagreement. This was not very serious, since they seemed to be only peripherally interested in the school; but, it was important enough for them not to publically display mutual animosity: they were mostly all neighbors living in the same community.

Their solution was to try to recruit the headmaster (me, as well as my predecessor) as a go-between or intermediary decision-maker with a bias toward their own individual desires, so as to present the fellow with whom they were in conflict with a winning fait-accompli, as it were.

I announced this perception at a board meeting -- being at the time an adherent of the Frankness Rule --, remarking that they should approach each other directly since I was not going to bear the pressure of trying, at the same time, to surreptitiously prosecute and defend every board member’s personal agenda. I suspect this comment substantially reduced, in their eyes, the expected length of my tenure.

Wise action often requires preparation time for careful thought. This helps avoid rash decision we may well end up regretting. In smaller, intimate contexts, social niceties and etiquette enable us to temporize. We may, for example, at a family party meet relatives we would rather not maintain extensive contact with. So, we say, “It’s been nice talking with you again. We should try to get to see each other more often.” But, disregarding The Frankness Rule, we do not say, “O.K. let’s just say some nice words to keep the rest of the family happy. But we’re really out of here. Don’t call.”

Organizations institutionalize barriers to use of The Frankness Rule by setting up structures that cause delays and obscurities in communication. Personnel, e.g. secretaries, public-relations people, lawyers, are hired to formalize and to assist in what would otherwise be just another social strategem.

The last thing President Obama wants to have is an easily publicized, face-to-face conversation with President Angela Merkel about the NSA tapping of her private phones. Just as the last thing you want to have is a frank conversation with your significant other about a past ephemeral, yet very stupid thing he or she has done.

Being a decision-maker is often hard enough, and risky. Openness and speed of reply to one’s actions does not help persuade one to accept the burdens of such a role.

To examine these issues further, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making?

--- EGR