is a Professor and Department Chair in the Sociology Department at the Iowa. Michael wrote Jeff Peffer and me a charming and
insightful email a few weeks back about evidence-based management that I can’t
stop thinking about.
Lovaglia’s Law: The more important the outcome of a decision, the more people will resist using evidence to make it.
I can’t stop thinking about this law because, although it sounds like a joke, if I think about the basics of sociology, economics, and psychology, many signs are that Michael is right. Sociologists are really obsessed with power and status. The upshot of much of their work is that, the more is at stake, the more that people will be motivated to push for solutions that increase their power and decrease other’s power – and not motivated to take steps that help other people or other groups, let alone that help the system as a whole.
The concept that drives much economic research is that people strive to do what is in their individual self-interest (Indeed, some people claim that there is no underlying theme in Freakonomics. I always beg to differ because each chapter is a brilliant example of how Steve Levitt has applied the concept of self-interest in a different setting.) Clearly, the more important the decision, the more people involved stand to lose and gain, and the more strongly they push for outcomes that enhance their self-interest rather than are best for everyone involved.
Finally, psychologists have documented many ways that human decisions are flawed, swayed by biases rather than rationality (see Max Bazerman’s book on decision-making) whether the decision is important or not. But if you look at research on what happens to human beings when we are under stress, a host of studies show that we cling even more tightly to what we know and can do best, and that is especially hard for us to process unfamiliar ideas and to change how we do things when we work under severe time pressure and public scrutiny or when the stakes are high.
A partial, and paradoxical, solution is implied by Karl Weick’s work on small wins (see my last post): If important decisions provoke so much greed, distress, and irrationality, it might be best to try to reframe big decisions as small ones –- to fool yourself and others into believing that what seems big is really small! I confess, this is one of those ideas that sound really dumb when you start applying it: How would you convince the players in the Lebanon nightmare that, actually, the terms for the cease-fire really aren’t all that important? Pretty stupid, huh? But it may prove more practical in everyday decisions made by organizations: who to hire, what business strategies to pursue, what products to release, and so on. Perhaps framing them as less important to performance than they actually are can increase your success rate!
I throw out this weird idea for fun; I am not sure I believe it. I also confess that part of me doesn’t want to believe it even if it is true. But if Lovaglia’s Law and my fretting about basic behavioral science theory are right, then it just might work. Perhaps it is time for a management book called something like "It Doesn't Matter: The Power of Indifference." I think I am joking about that, but I am not sure.