How Being Less Certain Can Make You Strong
“If the recognition program doesn’t reward people with money, Scott, it’s worthless.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong, Bill. Making money isn’t the only reason people work.”
“I can’t believe how naïve you are, Scott. You do-gooders are all alike. None of you understand business.”
Could you imagine hearing a similar exchange where you work? Two people all wrapped up in their views and openly scornful of each other’s opinions? Happens a lot, doesn’t it? And, sadly, not only at work.
Back in 1905, Max Weber introduced the concept of bureaucratic management with its impersonal rules, rigid requirements, command-and-control hierarchy, and machine-like focus on efficiency. Some leaders still think that style is still the best way to manage. In fact, they think it’s the only way. Convinced of the truth of their belief, they act like Scott and Bill—self-righteous and dogmatic about their preference, and dismissive of other points of view.
What's wrong with dogmatism?
Dogmatism has been unflatteringly described as the arrogant assertion of opinions as truths or a rigid state of mind, in which it’s believed that things don’t change. The dictionary definition says dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
Having principles and believing in them, living them, is a good thing. That good thing starts to go south, however, around the word incontrovertible. When people take the position that their view is incontestable, that’s a problem.
Because passion becomes prejudice. Intolerance is tolerated. Polarization prevails. Listening lessens. Voices are silenced. Hearts and minds close. Curiosity ceases. Flexibility vanishes. Learning stops. There’s no room for differences.
No one says I’m going to take this job and become dogmatic, but sometimes people do just that.
Even worse, they’re unaware of having done it. Rigidity of thought and practice are like thieves who come furtively in the night and steal flexibility, growth, and change.
When someone gets caught up in dogmatism, they can find themselves suddenly arguing with everyone, amazed at how stupid people have become. They sneer at others' inability to see the wisdom of their ways. They’re constantly defending their turf, incensed about what their colleagues do or don’t do.
Could that be you?
Concerned that your certainty may have quietly hardened into dogma? If you are, do a self-audit. Ask yourself these seven questions.
1. Has my communication style become abrupt and dismissive?
Hardcore dogmatists believe that it isn’t worth their time to converse with non-believers who have nothing of value to offer. A dogmatist will change the topic, give short answers, or ignore what’s said. They may lob insults, trivialize, or harshly criticize. They look away, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, or interrupt. They’ll use disdainful hand gestures, maybe even walk away.
2. Do I feel more anger and despair about differences than I used to?
Because they know they’re right, dogmatists look to impose their beliefs on others. When that proves impossible, feelings of anger and despair follow. They’re frustrated in dealing with people who refuse to see how misinformed and mistaken they are. Dogmatists are fond of phrases like should be, always are, and never, and use them frequently. When their expectations are unmet, the dogmatist feels anger, frustration, and contempt for fools.
3. Do I look for ways to prove that I’m never wrong?
Dogmatists pull themselves up by beating others down. They don’t make mistakes or have errors of judgments. Only the “others” who are wrong do that. A dogmatist knows the truth, so they don't have to agonize over it. Nor will they compromise or move toward moderation.
4. Have I changed my circle of friends and only associate with those who share my beliefs?
Dogmatic individuals are confident about their beliefs. They hold on to them even when evidence contradicts them, so associating with people who think similarly is comforting as well as affirming.
5. Have I stopped listening to people who have opinions that differ from mine?
Dogmatists focus on their certainties. They’re interested in other people as long as they support their image of rightness. A dogmatist doesn’t see any way for someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs to make a good point, so they feel no need to listen to them.
6. Do I reach conclusions quickly based on how I see the world?
Dogmatists use an all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway approach to life. That includes decision-making and problem-solving. If one solution to a problem clearly aligns with a dogmatist’s perspective, they select that option and view time spent seeking out alternative solutions a waste of time.
7. Do I see the world in terms of black or white?
To a dogmatist, the world is simple. People are either a good guy or a bad one. Someone is either a friend or foe. Someone’s position is either right or wrong. Dogmatists don’t see complexity or nuance. A problem with two answers that are both right yet contradictory doesn’t exist. There’s a single category or label for everything and everyone.
Recognize yourself in any of these questions?
If you do, reach out to a trusted friend or colleague. Ask for their help in finding less rigid and irrefutable territory. You, and those around you, will be happier.
P.S. For purposes of illustration, I went to the off-the-charts extreme in defining a dogmatist.