When It’s Difficult to Understand Irrational and Illogical Behavior

Why Do People Say and Do Irrational Things?

xray of homer simpson's brainOne aspect of misalignment is when people experience others acting in ways they find irrational and illogical. ‘Why would they say that?’, ‘How could they ever think that was right?’

Our research surfaced that in these situations most of us make a negative judgment of the other person’s intent. “It’s obvious. She’s trying to get more of the budget for her department next year.”, “Well, he’s incented to do that even if he knows it hurts me.” and, “She’s just resisting this change even though she knows it’s needed.” – to list a few that we’ve heard.

These rationalizations are logical, making perfect sense to that person. (Which they then use as ‘data’ when interacting in the future with the other person.)

The application of Alignment Optimization has shown that these rational, logical, inferences of negative intent are accurate only 5% of the time. We identified this by being able to question both parties and learn their reasoning. 95% of the time, there was an explanation that was not based on ‘bad’ intent.

That’s useful to remember next time you see someone doing something you don’t think is right. However, there are times when you cannot engage with both parties to gain their reasoning and resolve the misalignment. I had such an experience last month…

I had asked a friend to introduce me to an executive at a consulting firm. He did so, which allowed me to send a note introducing myself and SchellingPoint. The introduction said ‘As our mutual friend mentions, our research into the subject of alignment has yielded new concepts and methods that are now being taught at US business schools, and embedded in alignment software. I am in your city on Sep 22nd, and if this subject is of interest, would you like to meet to learn about the research and discuss how the solutions might apply to your consulting services?’

Being conscious of unsolicited email and spamming, I tried to keep it as non-salesy and as neutral as possible. In fact, this was the same message sent to many consulting managing partners the last few months, that has led to new partnerships for SchellingPoint – with a few ‘No, thanks, not interested.’ along the way.

This time, the person responded quite negatively. In fact, with the sort of reply they would probably not wish to see printed on the front page of a newspaper. I apologized for contacting her, saying that ‘given your role and the nature of your work, I thought you would enjoy learning about advances in creating business alignment’.

Woman confused by a colleagues's commentsWhy did I consider her behavior irrational and illogical? Her title is Chief Alignment Officer.

Is it just me that finds this ironic?

Now, it would be very easy for me to jump to one or more ‘obvious’ conclusions:

  • She thinks that as Chief Alignment Officer she is the one who knows all about alignment so what could I have to tell her?
  • She could think it’s a ploy to sell her software?
  • She could think it’s a way to find out about her business, believing that we’re a competitor?
  • She could have no academic foundation to her work as Chief Alignment Officer, so someone with such a foundation would be a threat and expose her?

But without talking to her, these are all just rational ‘negative judgments’, which I’ve learned are rarely accurate. So I’ll keep laughing about the situation, and give her the benefit of the doubt.

The key here is that to resolve misalignment, there has to be a way to share each party’s reasoning behind their actions. Fortunately, most of the time in business, we can do that. When Prof. Thomas Schelling was first developing his breakthrough work on like-mindedness and Schelling points, it was in Cold War and similar conditions, where conversation ‘with the other side’ was impractical and one had to make life and death inferences. I have nothing to complain about.

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