July 2, 2010    BusinessPsychology

The Tact of Leaders

How do leaders and people in authority gain an accurate picture of what’s going on around them and how sensitive (in both senses of the word) should they be towards criticism?

There’s a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled “the Autumn of the Patriarch” in which a decrepit and beleaguered but ruthless dictator finds himself without any close confidants to whom he can turn for a truthful description of what’s happening in his country and how he’s perceived as its leader. He finally resorts to visiting the servants’ latrines in the basement of the building in order to read the descriptions and see the caricatures of himself scrawled in graffiti across the walls. Thus it’s possible for him to gain some kind of perspective by juxtaposing these representations with the ridiculously fanciful distortions presented to him by his aides who are terrified of uttering the slightest word of negativity or criticism to him.

It has always been the case that leaders have intimidated their subordinates but it has also been the case, on occasion and sometimes for generations, that certain cultures have developed who positively encourage criticism. In his 1958 essay “The Beginnings of Rationalism” Karl Popper traces the progress of the “tradition of critical discussion” back to the Ionian School of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales:

“I can hardly imagine a relationship between master and pupil in which the master merely tolerates criticism without actively encouraging it… At any rate, there is a historical fact that the Ionian school was the first in which the pupils criticised their masters, in one generation after the other… It was a momentous innovation. It meant a break with the dogmatic tradition which permits only one school doctrine, and the introduction in its place of a tradition that admits a plurality of doctrines which all try to approach the truth by means of critical discussion.”

—Karl Popper

How might we create a culture in which criticism is not only tolerated but positively encouraged? Criticism is such a vitally important component of any discursive environment because it has the potential to identify and articulate genuine weaknesses, problems and difficulties and raise them for discussion and debate in such a way that they may be overcome, or that improved solutions might be developed and implemented. Criticism has a deeply powerful role to play in all aspects of culture and society but it can also be significantly intimidating for the same reason. Criticism has the potential to undermine and disrupt situations and conditions which may have been reasonably workable, if not wholly perfect beforehand. It can divide people, cause acrimony, suspicion and long-lasting distrust. Criticism often makes those who are criticised feel insecure, and when criticism is made of superiors they’re very likely to interpret it as an affront to their authority or professional position. It’s necessary therefore that all criticisms are proffered with a generous helping of tact in order that the person making the criticism doesn’t undermine the very ground on which they stand, not to mention the value of the criticism offered. In 1848 John Stuart Mill was well aware of this necessity when he wrote:

“In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground…”

Such tact can take the form of considerate, well timed appropriately toned comments but in certain circumstances even this doesn’t guarantee open approval. In group situations the process of offering criticism can be even more complicated and often puts the individual making the criticism in a very vulnerable and uncomfortable position. In such group situations the tendency towards groupthink is very strong indeed and may even lead to individuals being ostracised if they’re seen to express what might be interpreted as dissenting opinion.

Groupthink can arise just as easily within egalitarian peer groups as it can within the hierarchy of groups with identified leaders. However, it is only within hierarchical groups that leaders are likely to unwittingly dissuade critical input:

“For example, subtle constraints, which the leader may reinforce inadvertently, may prevent a member from fully exercising his critical powers and from openly expressing doubts about a risky course of action when most others in the group appear to have reached a consensus.”

— Irving L. Janis 1982

In the book “Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes” from which the above quote derives, Janis describes how amiability amongst small groups of leaders can actually lead to unquestioned reinforcement and implementation of ill-formed decisions with potentially disastrous consequences. He therefore advocates a nine-point list of checks and reviews which are intended to counter groupthink and to arrive at thorough and fully considered outcomes. What I find most interesting here is that Janis’ suggestions are universally discursive in nature and place a great deal of emphasis on the leaders’ active promotion and “acceptance” of critical opinion.

In ideal circumstances the counter-opinions of others can be extremely useful to ensure that all avenues have been fully explored, but even within the solitude of our own mind there’s a constant process of give-and-take occurring between judgment and critical analysis which allows us to make more informed decisions about the things that we encounter. In 1996 the neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran put forward the hypothesis that the right and left hemispheres of the brain react differently to unexpected experiences. Whilst the left hemisphere of the brain seeks to maintain rationality and the continuity of belief, using a variety of cognitive processes and self deceptions; the right brain acts as a kind of devil’s advocate or “anomaly detector” that registers, and responds to, inconsistencies. The right brain (the side most commonly associated with creativity) therefore challenges and counters the left brain’s tendency towards superficial or unexamined answers.

So whether it is within group situations or the confines of one’s own mind, critical input is a vital tool in arriving at informed decisions. But who stands to gain the most from such decisions? In the case of individuals the answer is obvious but the case of groups it is less so. Everyone in a group benefits from the positive actions of the group, but the leader of any group always benefits (or suffers) the most. Despite the energy, vulnerability and tact which is necessary to giving criticism, it’s always the case that the person who stands to gain most from critical input is the leader of the group. This is a useful observation though, because it allows us to recognize something about what we could call the “economics of criticism”: something is given and something is received; something is sacrificed and something is gained. But, of course this isn’t always the case. The person making the criticism might not be doing it for purely altruistic reasons. Sometimes criticism is offered simply as a reprimand or retribution for some perceived injustice or incompetence. In this case it would be better to think of such criticism as defiance. Defiance is an expression of non-co-operation or counter action whereas criticism, when extended in the fullness of its potential, offers the hope of positive change. The obstacle to genuine criticism then, is that it’s too easily mixed with, or mistaken for, defiance.

It will be clear by now that there’s certainly a need for a high level of tact in the delivery of critical opinion to ensure that it’s taken in the spirit in which it was intended. But if we think further about the economics of criticism we can see that there’s also an additional emphasis on leaders themselves being willing and able to sustain criticism and engage it meaningfully, since, if they fully understand what they may have to gain through their acceptance of criticism, they’ll realize that such gifts also come with responsibilities. It might be useful here to develop this formulation of criticism as a kind of gift which needs to be packaged very carefully, but in addition to this careful wrapping there’s also a significant imperative, on the part of the receiver, in having the humility to understand that whilst not all gifts are things which are desired, they nonetheless represent a sacrifice on the part of the giver and the promise of a positive gain on the part of the receiver. The respect which this demands is a vital form of tact and one which all leaders would do well to cultivate.

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”

—JS Mill


David Miller (1983). A Pocket Popper. UK: Fontana.

John Stuart Mill (1848)1988. On Liberty. London: BPCC Paperbacks.

V.S. Ramachandran, The evolutionary biology of self-deception, laughter, dreaming and depression: some clues from anosognosia, Medical Hypotheses, November 1996, 47(5):347-62.

Irving L. Janis (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. London: Wadsworth