Hard path to get things right

Employers regularly take universities to task for not producing graduates with the qualities needed in the modern workplace. Chief among these, so we are told, is the capacity for independent, critical thinking – that is, being able to test arguments for logic and coherence in the process of making up one’s own mind about issues of importance.

Like most university teachers, I do my best to try to deliver what the market wants.  And on the face of it, independent thought is exactly what a university education should be about. While academic disciplines are mostly about imparting knowledge of a particular kind, much more thought is given than in the past to the kinds of skills that we hope our graduates will demonstrate once they finish. If true critical thinking requires specific tuition and practice, at least we can build on the fact that academia teaches ways of approaching particular kinds of problems.  In my own case, the link is clearer than most, because public policy analysis is itself a form of logic applied to a variety of problems. 

The problem is, in the real world, the scope for applying, or even just articulating, independent critical thinking, is quite constrained. Even common sense struggles in a world that is simultaneously more ambiguous, more controlled and more changeable than in the past. Most organisations, most of the time, are not sensible places. When it comes to what they actually do, as distinct from what they say (or even think) they do, the last thing most employers want, is independent or critical thinking from their staff.

They can see the relevance of it, because every workplace throws up problems that are difficult in the extreme.  But sooner or later, critical thinking in the workplace comes to grief, because it leads to criticism of those in charge. And in general, managers, in common with most of us, do not like being criticised.

Now, we know that workplaces are not democracies. Industrial democracy, one of the many dreams of the long-gone 1960s, quickly disappeared under the crushing weight of global competition.  But it does seem to me that conformity and obedience have become stronger management demands over the past twenty years.

Most organisations still harbour the odd free thinker, often a remnant baby boomer who, like Banquo’s ghost, insists on marring days of corporate jollification with dire warnings, or awkward reminders as to what may have been said, or promised earlier. But these folk are rapidly veering off into retirement.  Many have been purged from the ranks by the operations of the great 54/11, the early-retirement anomaly of the old Commonwealth super scheme, under which many otherwise able-brained and able-bodied persons exited the workplace.

The younger generations, as has often been observed, have no trouble with an outward conformity. Why stick your neck out when you can always move on?  But the art of giving and receiving criticism has to be learned, and being criticised may come as a shock if no one has ever been critical of you in your whole life. Critical writing is all the more difficult if you have never been taught the basics of the precise use of your own language. One of the dubious legacies of my own generation was the widespread neglect, in the name of creativity, of the teaching of English grammar, paragraphing, syntax and punctuation. It’s tough to be critical if you’ve never been properly taught how to structure your thoughts through words.

From a manager’s viewpoint, it must be hard to know who to take seriously. Warnings abound, and if managers heeded all those who foresee disaster or even difficulty, it would be difficult to get anything done. It cannot help that, whenever disaster strikes, we can usually find someone, somewhere, who issued a warning that just this particular event was bound to occur. There were warnings about the global financial crisis, there are constant warnings about climate change. How can we know the risks we face?

There is no easy answer to that question. But some warnings do have force. They are disregarded, not because managers are persuaded to take a chance, but because doing something about them would require that rarest of managerial virtues – courage.

If our political leaders had insisted, as they undoubtedly should have done, that Australia would not export live animals, the entirely predictable disaster involving Indonesian slaughterhouses would not have occurred. I am quite sure that, at the time, Australian abattoir workers, fighting for their jobs, made the point that humane slaughtering could not be guaranteed. But policymakers are particularly vulnerable to a piece of illogical thinking that often gets them into trouble – they reject well-found warnings because ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’  Just because it is in someone’s interests to tell you something does not mean it is not true.

Some of our very worst decisions have this quality of moral arrogance. But then, the incentive to get it right may not be all that strong when the probability that the responsible decision-maker will be held to account is fairly low. We can imagine, too, that the sheer weight of the interests at stake is difficult to withstand.  It is little wonder that in this environment, standing up for particular groups of Australian workers against what is profitable and convenient is not something modern politicians are known for doing. And of course, the mantra of the late capitalist world we live in, is that markets always know best.

Every organisation, every profession has its secrets. And when we think about it, the things that do not work well, the stuff we would rather others did not know about, does not emanate from individual wrong-doing but from systems that, at every turn, seem to make it harder rather than easier to do the right thing. It is almost as if invisible magnets draw us down channels that are not of our choosing, but from which it would take a superhuman effort to escape.

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