Finding real-life meaning in axioms


By John Langhorne / Guest Column

In a recent series of conversations with a small group of people, we fell into a discussion of axioms from the category of “managing people and organizations.” Most of these had an element of humor hard to ignore.

An axiom is a statement or idea that people accept as self-evidently true. Interestingly, axioms usually have some empirical or philosophical basis of support. For fun, let’s examine some of these.

Perhaps the best known is Murphy’s Law, a simple but powerful axiom: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. A couple derivatives are “if you play with something long enough it will break” and “never let a machine know you are in a hurry.”

Murphy is a comprehensive acknowledgement that there are random events in our environments, thus the pervasive belief in luck. Consider the nature of lucky people. It appears to me that lucky people have characteristics, probably learned, that allow them to identify opportunity in random circumstances.

Parkinson’s Law states “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” A corollary is “set the performance bar low enough and many will eventually give you that performance.” This is particularly evident in badly run meetings.

A challenge for good managers is to find a performance demand level that is high enough to catalyze excellent performance yet not too high to discourage people. This is complicated by the personal differences in people’s perceptions of too high or too low. Clearly good goal setting and timely, mostly positive feedback are the critical elements driving high performance. Does that sound like The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson?

The Peter Principle states that in organizations people rise to their level of incompetence. Almost anyone who has had a “boss from hell” can attest to this principle. Actually, there is an important grain of truth in this principle that anticipated an important area of research of what predicts managerial success. Longitudinal and other studies show there are three key predictors of managerial success: competence, interpersonal skill and integrity. Although this finding is several decades old, many organizations still promote only on the basis of competence, then wonder why the person is not working out.

William of Okham was an English philosopher who suggested, “Thou shalt not thy multiply thy entities needlessly.” The principle can be interpreted as “the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Occam’s Razor is also called the law of parsimony. I have observed many people who never fail trying to make any simple idea more complex, hence more incomprehensible.

My social director and I have recently been entertaining a foreign student at an Eastern Iowa university who is a Fulbright scholar. She reads, writes and speaks American like a native. In a casual conversation we asked her what the greatest challenge was for her in the states. She noted that many of the texts were difficult to understand. QED. Oops just accidentally stumbled into another axiom “quod erat demonstrandum”. This is a mathematical term “thus it has been demonstrated” used to conclude a proof.

I conclude with Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” This is my favorite as it can be used to distinguish between those who have a default tendency to trust others rather than those who generally believe most people are untrustworthy.

Aside from some obvious chuckles, why would knowing these axioms be of value? In social interactions the continuum for rules and principles is worth consideration. In psychology heuristics can be efficient principles/mental frames that assist people making decisions, judgments and solving problems, typically when facing complexity or incomplete information.

Consider Hanlon’s Law: it may seem harsh but it forces you to reframe from “people are bad” to “people can be stupid.” Then comes another axiom supported by research and experience: Yerkes – Dodson’s “stress makes people stupid.”