Thanks to the U.S. election, we are getting a rare look at a huge problem that I have observed with many CEOs (and people in general): a nearly rabid need to appear right, without the necessary interest or skills to actually be right. This is called Argumentative Theory and, over the years, I’ve decided that the higher the executive in the organization, the more often you see this behavior.
In extremes, this behavior can drift to a violent rejection and attack on anyone who has what may be a better idea. I believe it nearly landed Steve Jobs in jail, cost Steve Ballmer his job as CEO of Microsoft, and will likely not only cost Donald Trump the U.S. presidency, but eventually collapse his business empire.
I think we all have this fault to some degree, but we can at least address it within ourselves. Once it gets entrenched in an executive, anyone attempting to overcome it as a third party will likely find themselves fired for the attempt. This is why smart employees learn never to challenge what appears to be idiotic behavior in a superior; rather than being praised, they are far more likely to be fired or publicly ridiculed. This is likely why Trump’s smart advisors don’t seem to be keeping him from doing questionable things -- it won’t do much good.
In effect, Argumentative Theory is a human software bug that has connected leadership to the ability to successfully defend a position. Leaders have to look like they are in control and can make big decisions. Instead of human reasoning evolving based on facts and arriving at correct decisions, it cheated. Then evolution was on, using reasoning to distrust the arguments from others, favor our own, and use our reasoning skills to tear apart those who challenged us.
At its basis is something we call Confirmation Bias, or the bane of analysts, which argues that once we have a position, we will selectively see only those things that affirm it. And the more right the challenger is, the angrier we are likely to get. This, if you think about it, is really stupid because we’re trading actually doing the correct thing for the pleasure of beating up the person who is more right than we are.
This is a symptom of Argumentative Theory, and implies that we are hard-wired to not only be bullies but act against our own self-interest.
Examples of Argumentative Theory
We all likely have known that friend who has entered into a bad marriage when it was clear the person he or she was marrying was going to be a disaster. Before the marriage, that person talks as if the prospective spouse is an angel. After the divorce, he speaks of the same person as Satan’s spawn. The harder you try to convince your friend he is making a mistake, the more he doubles down on his very selective, and generally false, view of what will be, and is, a train wreck. Yep, this is a sign of Argumentative Theory in action.
While I’d heard from a number of people that the way to get Jobs to do something was to trick him into thinking it was his idea, the most obvious example was when he reset his own stock options secretly (creating a nasty reporting problem). Jobs believed strongly that he deserved the money, that neither his CFO nor his board supported the effort, and that his job as CEO at Apple was arguably the most important thing in his life. He didn’t even really need the money, yet the result put both his job and freedom at risk because he simply couldn’t see the risk he was taking by going against his board and CFO.
Ballmer was known to get physical when folks disagreed with him. A number of his executives lost their jobs when, after failing to convince Ballmer he was on the wrong path, they tried to go around him to Bill Gates. Zune, buying Yahoo, buying Nokia, Bing, and becoming isolated were all catastrophic, avoidable mistakes where the folks who had argued against these deals were largely “shot” and it was clear that Ballmer was his own worst enemy. Ballmer was likely the smartest CEO I’ve ever met, but his problem was his need to appear right. This turned his vast intelligence from an asset to a liability.
Donald Trump and Social Networks
When journalists fact-check Trump against Hillary Clinton, they seem appalled that he appears to be lying about 70 percent of the time against Clinton’s 27 percent. It is likely both candidates may actually believe much of what we categorize as lies and don’t accept the possibility that their beliefs are untrue.
Social networks, which increasingly parse what you get based on your interests, and let you block or unfriend those who disagree with you, effectively feed this problem. Now it becomes vastly easier not to see positions that may be stronger than yours so that, increasingly, all you see is information that confirms you are and were right. You can become even more entrenched because it looks like people predominantly agree with you (because your feed alters itself to tell you, falsely, that this is the case).
By the way, this suggests that social networks may be increasingly at fault for our inability to choose good politicians.
Fixing the Human Software Bug
If we were computers, we’d call this behavior a dangerous software bug and prioritize a fix, because it’s incredibly dangerous to our long-term success and happiness. By the way, this doesn’t mean we need to give in to the opinions of others either, because they are just as likely to have locked down on the wrong thing as we are. The goal is to challenge on facts, not belief, and challenge our own first. If you find yourself getting angry when challenged, that you struggle with remembering proof, or that you use your authority excessively to win arguments, those are all signs you are wrong and need to find out what is right. And, generally, you’ll make better decisions if you are well founded in facts than if you are founded instead in your innate need to be right.
Sadly, just as it is nearly impossible to fix a bug in another company’s product, I’ve never found a good way to fix this behavior in others. Even pointing out Argumentative Theory and Confirmation Bias will likely only get people angry at you. If you have to beat them, it typically requires that you do your homework and have some form of mediator, ombudsman, arbitrator, or judge who can look dispassionately at both sides. But it is generally far cheaper to not get involved with folks who have this problem in the first place because the resulting resolution process (typically litigation) and mistakes have a tendency to be really expensive.
Wrapping Up: Being Aware of Our Own Flaws
Argumentative Theory explains that we were bred to favor appearing right over appearing wrong and thus will do things that are not in our own best interest in order to appear right. And rather than basing our positions on facts, we will treat facts that disagree with us as problems to eliminate. We focus on the exact wrong thing, winning the argument, and not on whether we’re actually right.
I expect we can likely trace back almost every catastrophic business, military and political mistake to this one problem. My concern is that we may end up programming it by accident into a new class of learning artificial intelligences (AIs). We are also reinforcing this behavior with social media. Fixing it in ourselves means being willing to look at the symptoms and being able to at least consider the possibility that we are wrong while favoring facts over opinions, particularly our own. In short, you want your intelligence to work for you, not against you. Trump serves as a reminder for what can happen if you advance to a position of power without understanding and fixing this problem.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+.