A Coach’s Nightmare: When My Career Theory Is Wrong. Dead Wrong

As a research-based consultant, I’m used to getting my ideas tweaked by new research. After all, I think of myself as a fairly flexible, open guy, so a small adjustment to my theories and ideas is usually illuminating. But unknown to Harvard’s Rosabeth Kanter, yesterday she took a Shillelagh, a big club to one of my big ideas. Her blog, Why running a family doesn’t help you run a business, knocked me back on my heels. And I yelled a silent Aaargh!, knowing full well that she was quite correct and I was quite wrong. So there, I admitted it Prof Kanter.

KanterKanter lays out her case with panache, acknowledging the conventional wisdom first. Here’s her argument:

In theory, those years of family work at home could look great on a resume. Consider the skills required: setting priorities, training others, organizing complex logistics and schedules, and using interpersonal sensitivity to handle difficult people problems. Indeed, some advocates have argued that the time women with advanced degrees spend out of the workplace managing a family is valuable experience for managing back in the paid work world.

I agree it is valuable experience — if the paid job one returns to involves managing a handful of people who are vulnerable and can’t leave. Otherwise, the operating skills for family manager are nothing like the qualifications for workplace professionals.

Her reasoning and evidence that follows are flawless—and quite correct.

Suffice it to say, that I’ve taught the very opposite and spent time preaching to the choir of empty nest women wanting back into the workforce.

To err is human
Yet I’m certain that most of us go through life assuming and even insisting that we are right about everything. And that includes stuff from the origins of the universe to how to load the dishwasher. That’s why Moliere’s comment is spot on: It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.

But I’ve figured out why, primarily, I’ve wanted so badly to be right. It was all about my allegiances and the narratives I’d built around them.

In his fascinating book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb introduces the idea of narrative fallacy to describe how flawed stories of the past shape our view of the world—and our expectations for the future. I have three daughters, all of whom were raised to be professionals just like their mother. Inevitably, as a father of smart daughters, I experienced male chauvinists who drove me nuts. After all, every father wants his best for his daughters, and their achievement was always tops in my priority list.

So, for instance, when my youngest was a high school freshman, I found myself in a teacher conference that raised my ire. Her male math teacher rather pointedly said, “Kris does very well in math, especially for a girl.” Knowing that her husband was about to become slightly volatile, my wife kicked me under the table, got my eye and essentially said (nonverbally) “cool it.” But you get the point. And so in later life, after having kids, they went back into the workforce rather successfully. Clearly, because of my family allegiances I got caught up in the narrative fallacy about mothers going back to work and began to preach it.

The narrative fallacy
The narrative fallacy is a decision error that most of us make largely because we are gripped by the illusion of understanding. As Daniel Kahneman explains them, they arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. And inevitably also, the explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple: are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity , and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.

Taleb clarifies the issue even more, suggesting that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true. The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past. That implies we should also know the future, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do. Thus WYSIATI: what you see is all there is. . . takes over in spades.

Resolving the narrative fallacy
I seriously doubt that any one of us will ever fully block our narrative fallacies, but there are a number of strategies we can take to limit their power over our lives.

The beginning place is a lot of stupid mindsets, rejected and reframed intelligently here by Daniel Kahneman:

  • Our thinking is designed to jump to conclusions with little evidence.
  • The world is far less predictable than we believe.
  • Luck plays a much larger role than we believe.
  • Because of WYSIATI, only the evidence at hand is questionable.
  • The amount of evidence and its quality don’t count for much because poor evidence can make a very good story.
  • Considering how very little we know about most situations, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.
  • The notion that we’re essentially rational is no more than an economist’s pipe dream.

Blocking errors like the narrative fallacy is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and engage in controlled thinking that emphasizes facts, statistics and thinking about your thinking.

It’s a lot harder than we think. But much of the best decision making and learning consists of challenging old ideas and assumptions.

So, I should have asked what made me think that running a family helps in runnning a business? Why do I think that? What evidence supports that reasoning? What’s the quality of the data? How else can I look at the success of a few empty nesters returning to the workforce? And especially, what evidence rejects that reasoning?

Well. . . you get the point. So thanks, Rosabeth Kanter. I guess.

Flickr photo: ashishvosharma99

Leave a Reply