“The single most important message in this book is very simple,” reads the first line in John Kotter’s highly regarded The Heart of Change. “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.
Really? That’s the important message? That emotive arguments are more powerful than factual arguments? What about other reasons why people change their behavior, such as social proof, conformity, incentives or coercion? By setting up a binary and artificial choice between two communication alternatives, he eliminates important strategic and tactical options.
It’s not just Kotter either, who is a well respected professor at Harvard Business School. The truth is that a lot of management thinking is surprisingly shoddy, with arbitrary notions and cognitive biases dressed up as scholarly work. We need to be more skeptical about “research” that comes out of business schools and consultancies. Here are three things to look for:
1. WYSIATI And Confirmation Bias
Kotter’s point about emotive vs. analytic arguments is, of course, completely valid. The fundamental error he makes is that he focuses on that particular aspect to the exclusion of everything else. Danial Kahneman calls this WYSIATI, or “what you see is all there is.” Once you get tunnel vision on a particular fact or idea, it’s hard to see anything else.
Consider this thought experiment: You go to a conference featuring a powerful, emotive presentation on the need to combat climate change. You see glaciers melting, polar bears losing their habitat and young children starving from drought. Then you go back to the office, fired up and ready to do something about it, but everyone else has a strong argument against acting on climate change.
What is likely to happen next? You convince you co-workers — including your bosses — about the urgency of the crisis? Or, surrounded by skeptics, your conviction begins to wane? When all we see is the poor polar bears and starving in an echo chamber of likeminded people, we forget about other considerations, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is.