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It seems that my series about Philosophy of Science in Organizations isn’t still finished. In the last post we were analyzing the different ways our imaginary HR division could study employee motivation. However, I realized there is still one thing that was not touched much. What about the situation when the HR division has a different view about what is happening than the employees? What if the people seem to think that there is something wrong e.g. with the processes, even though company is following the “best practices” of the industry?

Principle of Charity and Irrational SW Designers

Donald Davidson formulated so called “principle of charity” to tackle this problem. For him it was clear that subjects of study have to be thought of as rational actors – otherwise we would come to conclusion that these people don’t have any beliefs or mental states. (See the post about positivism & behaviorism.) So, when we interpret our subjects we are not just translating the meanings of used language, but also interpreting the beliefs and mental states. The problem is that these meanings and mental phenomena are holistic – meanings affect the mental states and vice versa. To solve this circle Davidson said we need to believe that our subjects share quite similar beliefs about the world and thus we can understand them.

So what about our SW designers? Are they irrational or should we use the principle of charity and assume they are rational? There are three types of charity we can use:

  1. SW designers’ beliefs are rational from the viewpoint of HR
  2. SW designers’ beliefs are rational in relation to their other beliefs
  3. SW designers’ actions are rational in relation to their beliefs and wishes

Clearly the number 1 isn’t the case here. But perhaps the number 2 & 3 are acceptable? For some reason they believe that company’s working processes are demotivating. In the surveys and interviews they also specify some other beliefs such as “empowerment is more motivating than strict rules“. These are rational beliefs in relation to the belief that our current processes are demotivating. Their actions (e.g. complaining, passivity, rebellion) are also rational in relation to these beliefs.

So, how to continue with the interpretations from here? Should the HR believe that SW designers are right about their opinion that these “best practice” working processes suck?

David Henderson had a view that the process of interpretation has different phases:

  • First phase is to make rough interpretation of the studied subject. In this phase the principle of charity is essential. With charity it is possible to form an “interpretation frame“.
  • In the second phase the principle of charity isn’t as strong, some mistakes are expected to be found against the interpretation frame from the thinking of the subjects, and thus it is possible to make corrections to the original interpretations accordingly.

Henderson also had this idea of “balanced principle of charity” that was a rough guide about when to use charity and when to assume some irrationality of the subjects. He also thought that when ever there is irrationality, the interpreter must seek ways to maximize the “explainability” of these irrationalities. The irrationalities might be explained e.g. by psychological reasons.

So, in our example the HR division might assume at first a strong charity to the SW designers beliefs. After forming a holistic picture on the matter (interpretation frame) they would then utilize balanced charity: Perhaps the SW designers can be wrong about matters that they are not very familiar with, like the higher level working processes? Then the HR would make some corrections to their interpretations and try to maximize the explainability of the irrationalities. E.g. the heavy workload might affect the attitudes and thus explain why employees feel so strongly against the processes. Also, perhaps the new leader has a leading style that they aren’t used to and they are resisting it. HR might then come to conclusion that some of the beliefs of the employees are wrong because they don’t understand the topics deeply enough and some are explainable with psychological reasons. However, some of the beliefs are real and thus relevant changes to the processes should be made.

Conclusions

Principle of charity is very useful concept when studying people. However, very strong forms of charity are problematic as they completely neglect the possibility of irrationality. On the other hand, it would also be a mistake to not use charity at all. It isn’t very probable that people could be always wrong with the meanings that they use in their language and it’s not very probable that they would be systematically illogical either.

So, a moderate usage of principle of charity is recommended whenever there seem to be big irrationalities. Perhaps in the first phase the charity can be stronger and then more moderate as Henderson suggests. It is also wise to seek explanations to the suggested irrationalities and correct the interpretations accordingly.

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