Skeptics and Pragmatics

When in doubt about where to start on a topic, I almost always turn to the best companion a writer of any kind can have, the dictionary. Webster’s dictionary defines “skeptic” as a noun, and “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.” There are a few other definitions, but this is the first one on the list.

The etymology of the word (to be honest when I did some of my initial research I wondered why anyone would want to know the “study of bugs” with association to “skeptics”, but it turned out that I had confused “Entomology – the study of insects” with “Etymology – the origin of words”. Silly me.) comes from the name taken by the disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who lived c.360-c.270 B.C.E., and is related to skeptesthai “to reflect, look, view”. In any event, you can see where the word came from and how its meaning was formed.

So what has this to do with business, you might ask since that is what I usually write about.

It has to do with the fact that skeptics and skepticism are normally viewed in a negative light when it comes to business. Management usually wants you to fall in line behind their plans and start executing them. Skeptics are viewed as hindrances to the progress of management’s plans. The plan is done. Let’s get on with it. If we had wanted your opinion we would have asked for it.

Leaders on the other hand will usually seek out those that “reflect, look, view” and “who question the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.”

Please don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for skepticism and there is a time and a place for action. However it is always the time and place to ask if you are doing the right thing.

Plans must be continually questioned and revised. Processes must be continually reviewed and renewed. Just because something looked like it would work one day does not mean it will look and work the same at a later date.

The problem is that for the average manager it is easier to continue on with an existing plan, even a bad existing plan then it is to make the effort to revise the plan, or even develop a new plan and to change directions. I don’t know why this seems to be the case in business, but it has been my experience across most of my business career. It seems the risk associated with trying something different is felt to be greater than the risk of continuing to do something wrong.

This brings us to our second word for the day: pragmatics. Much like labeling someone a skeptic in business as a negative characteristic, being labeled a pragmatic seems to have taken on a similar context. It doesn’t seem that anyone has ever been told they are pragmatic enough. You only hear about people being too pragmatic as if that means that they are not capable of somehow grasping the bigger picture.

I think this is similar to the conundrum associated with “whelming”. You often hear of people being overwhelmed when they have too much to handle. You sometimes hear of them being underwhelmed when they are not impressed. You never hear of them being just plain whelmed.

Going back to Webster’s dictionary, for “pragmatic” we get an adjective this time, “of or pertaining to a practical point of view or practical considerations.” When we look at the source or study of bugs associated with this word we get from Latin pragmaticus “skilled in business or law” and from the Greek pragmatikos “fit for business, active, business-like; systematic”. There’s more, but I think you get the picture.

A pragmatic is someone who is skilled in business with a practical point of view. Now the catchphrase here is “practical”, so here we go again. Practical according to Websters another adjective: adapted or designed for actual use; useful. Now we have a pragmatic as someone who is skilled in business with a point of view that is adapted or designed for actual use.

So enough already with the word-smithing.

What all this has led up to is a couple of questions: How is it that the skeptic, the one who wants to see deeper into the topic seems to be perceived as an obstacle to progress as compared to the individual who never questions authenticity and validity? Why is it that the pragmatic, the one who wants to do things designed for actual use is seen to be perceived as not inspiring enough to lead?

Business seems to have evolved over time away from some of these basic tenets that in the past have been the basis for success. History is littered with examples of some very hard lessons that were learned, or more accurately, relearned at great expense, where the skeptic or the pragmatic were ignored, but were in the end proven correct.

I remember working for a company where all of the management and all but one of the stock analysts were convinced that the company and its stock price would only go higher. It was a market boom. Everyone needed to get on board or be left behind.

There was however one analyst who kept saying that the market was overbought and the business model did not even support the existing business and stock levels. He was a skeptic. He was ostracized and ignored.

When the market, and stock crashed and thousands lost their jobs he was proven far more accurate than anyone was even comfortable discussing. The company went from being the market leader to having gone out of business in less than ten years.

I also recall the reviews by the public and the analysts about the banks that were described (rather derisively) as “pragmatic” when they did not participate in the new burgeoning “sub-prime” mortgage market. There was great money to be made. They were going to miss out on the new found fortunes. When the market crashed, and took down most of the economy with it, it again proved that the business practice of making mortgage loans to those that had a high probability of being able to pay back the amount of the loan they received was still the best practical model. It seems that eventually sound business practice will be proven out.

Skeptics and pragmatics, of one type or another need to be sought out and encouraged. They idea of not taking things at face value and doing things that are designed and adapted for actual use should never go out of style or favor. We need to remember that just because someone is a skeptic does not mean that they are an obstruction to be overcome. Just because someone is pragmatic does not mean that they cannot be a visionary and inspirational leader.

Leaders today need to be looking for skeptics and pragmatics for their teams. After all, chances are that at least one of them will be proven to be one of the leaders for tomorrow.

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