Why Does Making a Rational Argument to Power, Fail?

Have you ever found a surprising insight through analysis about your business, prepared a set of slides with a solid argument, presented to the senior leadership, which dismissed it immediately?  I heard some head nods out there. You’re not alone… Sometimes that scenario is legitimate (“The leader knows that while your insight is likely true, they are about to change their business model and exit the business you’ve analyzed.”) But more often than not – especially regarding insights about people, they are following this golden rule:

“If your data matches my gut, then I am brilliant. Thank you for validating me. But if your data does not match my gut, your data is wrong, I’m right, and go away.”

I’ve been struggling  with ways to overcome that golden rule for a while – it’s an intractable, very human, and understandable reaction to things we can’t accept yet.  (There is a clinical name for this btw – it’s called Confirmation Bias.) I’m a big fan of Jonah Lehrer’s work on decision making.  and Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational and the Upside of Irrationality.) This weekend, Jonah wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that strikes at the heart of the golden rule problem, particularly within power.  He writes about a set of experiments where one person is granted unthrottled power:

“This [study] suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.”

Interestingly, those without unthrottled power can accept the rational argument – power can accept it less.  For those of us who analyze human capital data, I think this problem is harder – it’s about people- a topic that most in power have a strong opinion about.  I know I’m not ready to share a short, neat list of how to overcome this type of thorny problem (and open to your comments on how you’ve overcome it), but I know that good practices exist – we just need to come up with the list of “to dos” to help us all make our data more palatable to the people that need to act on it!


Jeremy Shapiro is an executive in HR at a leading financial services firm, working on talent analytics. Formerly a Senior Vice President of the Hodes iQ Talent Management Suite at Bernard Hodes Group and is a co-author of the HR metrics book Ultimate Performance. Jeremy has coached hundreds of companies in recruiting and HR technology solutions across industries and sizes. Jeremy is a frequent speaker and author on HR technology topics and HR Business Intelligence topics, such as SHRM, IHRIM, the Human Capital Institute, HR.com and more. He is a frequent contributor to articles and whitepapers on HR Business Intelligence. Jeremy holds a Masters of Science in Information Systems from NYU and a B.A in Economics from Rutgers University. Specific topics of research include HR metrics, talent management technology, and next generation recruiting technologies.

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4 comments on “Why Does Making a Rational Argument to Power, Fail?
  1. Michael says:

    I remember Socrates stating in at least one of the dialogues something about using a point of common agreement to pursue a further point.

    Of course, when he made people in power look ridiculous, things didn’t turn out too well for him.

    So, maybe even after starting from that point of common agreement, it’s best to also employ the “crap sandwich.” Praise, flattery=bread, then the thorny issues and then the bread again.

    Then maybe the “call to action”–no one wants to be seen as passive, but rather as masters of the universe who make things happen. Speakers to a tough audience can tap into that.

  2. Michael says:

    In any case, it’s often necessary but not always so easy to remind people that their own power can be fatal to themselves.

    Perfect example: Michael Jackson found himself a doctor who wouldn’t say “no” to him, with fatal results.

  3. Frank says:

    This power principle is something I find myself relearning every now and then.

    In response, I like the common interest approach that Michael points out. That is the foundation of current business training that deals with potentially adversarial or indifferent parties (Crucial Conversations and most sales training, for example).

    I have seen that approach in action when our service group needed substantial, company-wide participation in their initiative. They approached executive management as they would a major customer, detailing the benefits to “their” business first.

    I think the real challenge here is not really the indifference or hostility itself — it’s in our own ability to forecast and to prepare for those possibilities in advance.

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