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Sunday, 06 October 2013 09:58

Management thinking and the will to believe

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The American philosopher Thomas Nagel ends his short book “Mind and Cosmos” with these words:

“The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two – though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.”


Nagel’s little book concerns the place of mind and consciousness in modern reductionist science. He makes several interesting claims and arguments. But I want to step outside the domain of his book. One general message comes out loud and clear is that whilst there are many good reasons for believing certain theories, dig enough and you will find a set of assumptions which are rarely explored and rarely challenged.

I agree with Nagel on this point. That final sentence “The human will to believe is inexhaustible” is not presented in this context as a positive aspect of humanity, but a weakness or a challenge for us. If we move outside of science to many management theories, which rarely have the empirical evidence and tested rigour of a core scientific theory, we enter into a domain coloured by opinion and fad. 

Management theories, tools, practices and processes provide a huge and ever growing body of knowledge – or often not knowledge, but opinion. Amongst this body are real gems that can help organizations, businesses, teams, managers and leaders to achieve a vast array of positive outcomes. But we should not fall into the trap of thinking that much of these theories are ‘the truth’. At best they are useful tools, that have a shelf life and will one day be replaced by something else. At best they are rough approximations that can be usefully applied in certain situations when the appropriate level of reasoned judgement is applied. At worst they are dangerous fads with limited evidence, but for one reason or another a high level of appeal and belief.

Next time you apply some management theory, especially in a critical situation, ask yourself are you applying reasoned judgement or just unquestioning belief? After all, the human will to believe is inexhaustible. 

Read 93293 times Last modified on Sunday, 06 October 2013 10:25
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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