Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reflexivity and irony

Philosophers are a reflexive bunch. Not that they are very shiny (in my experience the contarary), rather they tend to think a lot about their thoughts. In management theory and education, reflexivity comes heavily recommended (see e.g. an article on reflexivity in reseach by my friend Nelson and his co-authors). Reflexivity is commonly associated with wisdom, something most of us would consider desirable.

In this blog post, I raise the question whether reflexivity and irony -- key philosophical virtues -- are also potential problems for managers wo must lead actual organizations.

Reflexivity and irony

To reflect is to ask why, to engage in reasoning where existing beliefs are used to justify or reject an action, a choice, a norm, a belief or an assumption. Philosophy has been and largely still is about reflecting on basic issue - why we consider something to be good, why we accept something to be true, and so forth. An intelligent individual reflects, an ignorant one accept the status quo without considering further reasons.

Richard Rorty, my favourite philosopher, has taken reflexivity to a point where most philosophers become uncomfortable. Namely, he convincingly argues that there can be no reason for a philosophical system that we can outright accept. There is no escaping language, in the sense that nothing but experience outside claims can underwrite our premises. With whatever philosophical standpoint we take, we ought to consider it with irony. This is a sense of irony that Rorty associates foremost with Nietzsche, the detached amusement towards the beliefs one accepts himself or herself. We may accept a certain outlook to life, but we must accept that there is no final unquestionable reason to do so (philosophy is in this sense no different from religion, it relies on belief).

Now, the view has not made Rorty very liked among many philosophers. Such is the burden of irony socially. Ironic approach to management studies is likewise warranted - does what we do make any difference? Are our papers really insightful? Has everything mostly not been said (and forgotten)? Are most approaches not only dogmatic continuations from commonsensical observations mystified by charismatic old men? Whatever the answers, these are worthy considerations. But don't expect them to be crowd pleasers on the cocktail event at a major conference.

Should managers be ironic?

Some authors, including Karl Weick, have called for more reflection and "mindfulness" on the behalf of managers. I am not sure it is always a good thing. Management and leadership benefit from confidence. Social action requires unity and permanence. How can hundreds of employees in an organization coordinate their work efforts if there is no uniform and stable understanding of means and ends, of premises and values? In Blink, Gladwell argues that Gettysburg, one of the most famous battles in military history, was lost because of reflection and indecision. Psychologically, individuals need their life to be predictable. Living with a partner who constantly questions and adjusts key life choices would probably be quite horrible.

A truly strong individual might be ironic privately, yet project utmost confidence externally. The self-control of an actor? The benefit of irony is the lack of fear. One who accomplishes to not take ones own position seriously will not be fooled to respect authority when it is not warranted. But without authority, even the authority of one's own knowledge, what is the basis for continued motivation and effort?

Entrepreneurship is particularly an area where scholars have identified passion and persistence to be advantageous. Irony and reflexivity, taken to an extreme, seem antithetical to passion. Indeed, the stereotypical philosopher is a miserable being mired in the fundamentsl doubt, best exempfilied in Sartre's existentialist novels (and perhaps even better by Camus). The entrepreneur is, in Lampel's words, "an optimistic martyr", an individual who chooses not to reflect on potential problems with the knowledge that the battle is more important than the victory. Because of the complexity of our existing beliefs, reasoning will seldom lead to any closure. A manager knows that analysis leads to paralysis because there are infinite facts and choices to reflect on.

Conclusions? I'll reflect on that...

Ironic reflection is the reasonable conclusion of 20th century philosophy, a conclusion that dethrones philosophy from its position as the meta-science, casting what used to be philosophy into history of philosophy, a humanistic curiosity and a source of inspiration devoid of authority. To reflect is to reason more, to be wiser. But managers might need a sort of meta-wisdom that tells them when not to reflect. We all need that actually, not to become the antiheroes of Camus and Sartre. Maybe someone should do a study on thhe downsides of wisdom and reflexivity in management? I'm not holding my breath to see that published and taught in the MBA programs...

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