Why does Economics assume rationality?

To a certain extent, I regret that I was major in Economics in university.    Economics assumes that people are rational i.e. individuals always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.  For many years, I took this assumption almost like the truth unconsciously.    Well….  even if not the truth…  I saw it as the RIGHT to be.    One should be rational!   One should park the feeling aside!    Such judgement has been reinforced in my mind as it is the norm in the banking industry and in Hong Kong.   (I have worked in banks and lived in Hong Kong for decades.)

On reflection, even outside the Economics / Banking / Hong Kong domain, the world does not really seem to welcome irrationality.    Normally, when someone said, ‘He is irrational’, it often carries certain negative connotation.   

Why would the world push away irrationality?    I think it is about predictability.   Back to the definition mentioned above, if all are rational, we always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.     We can then more easily predict how the others will behave.   And human being generally prefers certainty.   One would thus want OTHERS (or even himself or herself) to be rational.     

Why do I regret?    First, more and more I realise that human being is hardly rational.  The assumption in Economics that people are rational fails more often than not in real life.   I recently note down a few examples:

  • Why people spend so much money on funeral?
  • Why would people have kids?
  • Why would people celebrate new year / birthday?
  • Why people would pay USD1,000 for a plastic bag?
  • Why would people still smoke after near-death experience caused by heart attack? 
  • Why do people fall in love?  

After all, why do economics have to assume rationality? Because we are not!   At best, one can only say that ‘human being is irrational but trying to be rational’

Second, worshipping rationality means denying feeling. But when we really think about it, our feeling about things is inevitable.   In fact, one can argue that feeling is our ultimate pursuit.    For example, think of our most hardworking colleague – why does he / she work so hard?   He would say because he needs to pay for the mortgage.   Why mortgage?   Because of the need to find a place to live.   Why?   Because he needs to keep him / his family warm and well-fed.   

Further, if we want to understand ourselves better, we cannot ignore our feeling.  Feeling is an important source of data for self-awareness.   For example, different people would have different feelings when they look at the same painting.   On the first level, such difference already is already an element of who I am.  After all, who I am is in a way defined by how I am different from the others.   On a deeper level, exploring why one would have certain feeling will reveal his / her assumptions and beliefs.   

This is getting closer to why I am talking about irrationality and feeling in this blog….  which is about coaching / learning / development.     I will continue in the next post on how working with and on feeling will contribute to coaching / learning / development.    

(There are different definitions on the word ‘feeling’, and various arguments on how it is different from the term ‘emotion’ or ‘sensation’.    I refer ‘feeling’ as one’s own inner subjective, often irrational, experience.  It is sometimes more physical and observable e.g. tight stomach, headache, cold sweat. dizziness.    Sometimes, it is less so e.g. annoyance, anger, excitement.)

Danny Chan 陳百強

I guess only my fellow Hong Kong friends of certain ‘age’ will appreciate this post….  but whatever 🙂

I had a day of individual and team coaching sessions last month.   I arrived early to settle myself in my coaching room.   The first song coming from my iPhone was ‘不‘ (Translation: ‘No’) from Danny Chan 陳百強.    I was intrigued by the lyrics – what a sign for the upcoming coaching sessions.  This also points to the common resistance, unconscious or not, when enquiry goes deep.   The 2nd line makes me think of a common team issue of ‘artificial harmony’ vs ‘ productive conflict’.   Or, it reminds me of individuals’ defence of denial.

”請 不要問 請 不要問
只 想快樂 不 想有恨…..”

(Translation: “Please… do not ask.   Please… do not ask.   I want only happiness but not hatred”)

The song was released in the 80s.  Passing away young, Danny has been a legend to Hong Kong-ers of certain ‘age’.    I probably have heard his songs like this one a few hundred times.    Amazingly, new meanings arose as I listened to it in a coaching context.

When I paid attention to the rest of the lyrics, there are quite a few pieces reminding me of common issues I encountered with my coachees e.g.’.. 不顧生根 怕留腳印…’.   It sounds like the avoidance of genuine commitment to a team in order not to be hurt. 

Here is the song for those who loves it, and for those who have not encountered it.

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

 

A reflection on a recent ‘learning miracle’….  kind of.     I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program.  Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them. Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day.    In another call, Sandy (pseudonym) expressed repeatedly her excitement on how she became better in getting her message across by speaking less and more slowly.   She also gave detailed description on her changed behaviors were well received in her global offsite meeting.

The magnitude of change was exceptional.

If it was just one of them making such rather drastic change, I would say I was lucky.   Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call.    Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

But we had a few of them making exceptional changes.   Why?   On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:

Open program– To start with, majority of the participants paid considerable sum of fee (by themselves instead of being sponsored) and effort to enroll into the program.  This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly ‘invited’ to join because they are ‘talent’ or even because the program is ‘mandatory’.

Pre-coaching orientation– The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the ‘adaptive’ space.   I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.

Psychological Safety– We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure.   The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well.   This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.

Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidence– The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together.   We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously.  And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.

Peer– As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles.   This is both relieving and motivating.

My Being– I suspect my orientation was helpful as well.  Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging.   Putting more attention on psychological safety.

Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection – they made change without any input on techniques and skills!   This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about ‘will’ rather than ‘skill’.  This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless ‘training courses’, reading, videos or advices from others.   They own a great deal of conscious and tacit knowledge.

In other word, when learning does not happen, it is less about they do not know how but more about they do not want to, consciously or unconsciously.   And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?

Or in a ‘so-what’ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make change….  like considering the list above.

Safety vs Freedom

 

‘It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.’Franz Kafka

I come across this quote on radio today.   It explains so well how often the covert challenge coachees face.   Sometimes, it is not the unreasonable boss, the difficult client, the toxic organisation, the bullying peer, the subordinates who never get it or the lack of skills / resources / time, etc which make change difficult.   At least not the only or prominent reasons.   It is sometimes the coachee’s own inertia to stay unchanged for the sense of safety.   Yet, I think such inertia could be hidden deep inside…. even without the person being aware of it.    Quick implications to the coach would probably be how to:

  • sense that such inertia may be there (or not!)
  • collect data to verify
  • gently bring this up to the coachee without triggering resistance (which is easy to come…. ‘Who are you to judge me?!’ )
  • invite exploration on what is behind such hidden inertia
  • jointly create ways to catch it in action

The Good Old ‘Images’

 

This post is again about the fundamentals of learning – the use of images.    I came across the above image on ‘Moneyball of Leadership” video by Charlie Kim.   Charlie used it to illustrate his speech on how poor execution can kill even brilliant strategy

When I saw this image, an intervention jumps into my mind.     Imagine yourself an intact team sitting in a room.   After some check-in, show the image with some silence.   Depending on the intended topic of reflection / conversation (without restraining other things to emerge), we can ask the following questions:

Revealing the problem

  • ‘What do you see in the picture?’
  • ‘How would you feel if you are the painter’s supervisor?’
  • ‘In what occasion at work you experienced the similar?’
  • ‘What was the impact to the work performance?’
  • ‘What possibly caused such problem?’ 

Sharing practices

  • ‘How did you / the others tackle the situation?’
  • ‘What worked?   What did not?’

Encouraging self evaluation

  • ‘What was possibly in the painter’s mind when he / she did this?   Craft a line to describe the voice in his / her head, like those in a comic book.’
  • Put all those lines on a flipchart, and then ask ‘Share with your learning partner here an occasion where one of those voices once shows up in your own heads’
  • ‘How did you feel at that time?’
  • ‘If your mind changed at that time, what triggered such change?’

With relevant set-up and questions, one single image can provoke powerful reflection and learning conversation.

The ‘Clash’ between Coaching and Training

I recently ran a rather typical management development program.   There were a few modules in a few days.   Each modules was built around a competency topic e.g. communication, change management.  In each module, the participants are supposed to learn some specific tools / models on that topic, and then pondered how to apply them.   Such design is rather conventional.

Somehow, I noticed myself becoming less excited about such approach.   On reflection, I believe I was uncomfortable to introduce tools / models to the participants without sensing the participants’ need for such knowledge.   Perhaps I can do even more to build the WHY / ‘burning platform’ first (not in the standard design)     Yet, the very act of building the ‘burning platform’ already sounds odd or even manipulative to me.

On further reflection, from the organisational perspective, it is actually unavoidable and understandable for the central learning function to make participants learn about stuff which the latter did not necessarily see the need to do so.   After all, what the employer wants may NOT be the same as what individual employees want.

I think my discomfort is out of my growing ‘coaching mind-set’.   I have been spending more and more time on executive coaching and group coaching in the last 2-3 years.   (There are many different understandings on what ‘coaching’ is.   Mine is more around helping the coachee finding own solutions)     I thus would find it odd in a training setting to bombard the participants with unsolicited content.

I guess there is no absolute right or wrong.   Basically, if I continue to do such off-the-shelf standardized training program, I need to do better to establish the ‘burning platform’, both inside and outside the workshop.   (By ‘outside the workshop’, I mean influencing the clients on things like how to design and roll out the workshop in relation to imminent and related business challenge, how to select and orient the participants and their managers)

Love Art in Yourself

I happened to hear on a radio show this quote – ‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ by Konstantin Stanislavski who is a prominent theatre practitioner.   In particular, he is widely recognized by his theories on actor training and preparation.   Though this quote is more for the actors in the theatre business, I felt it super relevant for coaches and facilitators.   Specifically, the quote is a great reminder to us.

One of the biggest challenges (probably THE biggest) in the business of coaching and facilitation is the practitioner himself / herself.     (Of course, equally, it is the biggest asset as well)    It is a challenge often because we often unconsciously focus on ourselves rather than the work, especially when things does not go well.    For example, in coaching, when the work actually needs us to keep silence to provoke thinking, we keep on talking in order to ‘appear’ helpful.    Another example in facilitation / group coaching, when the work actually needs to allow productive conflict, we say something to pre-maturely harmonize the exchange.

Often, we take care of our own psychological need rather than doing the work.

I also recall an exchange with my fellow coaches in a program.   This was basically a condensed action learning program.  We were pondering when we should intervene as the coaches.   I said probably we should only intervene if we have YES to the following two questions:

  1. Are the participants STRUCK enough to have emotional attachment to the experience?
  2. Am I sure it is not my own anxiety that drives me to intervene?

‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ (or in Chinese愛你心中的藝術,而非藝術中的你)

 

Dancing with the Surprise

Less than 12 hours before starting a 2-day Leadership Development workshop, the client told me that they need to take the first 1 hour away from the workshop.  The new country head as the sponsor will introduce an ‘Action Project’ to the participants.  The first thought came to my mind was that it may not be a good idea because:

  • The ‘Action Project’ means demanding work for the participants in the coming few months. Introducing it in the beginning would probably take away the participants’ attention from the workshop
  • The country head is new to most in the room. We have little idea how his speech and his project will be in the line with workshop
  • Last but not the least, the participants did not know in advance that they need to work on an ‘Action Project’ at all!

Yet, on second thought, I found myself curious to let go.  I chose to experiment with this unpredictability.   After all, my client could not do much about it at that time.   I was very much in the state of ‘Be prepared and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in my previous blog post.

At the end, it turned out to be an enhanced learning experience for the participants.   Basically, I leveraged the participants’ strong attention towards the project to land the learning for the workshop content.   For example, a piece of workshop content is about the notion that people have different behavioural preferences.    I challenged the participants to apply the learning to prepare for the Q&A session with the sponsor on day 2.   The driving questions are ‘What behavioural preference did XXX demonstrated and why?   How would you engage him better tomorrow given your preference?’   I also facilitated them to talk about the possible dynamics within their respective project team using the behavioural preference language.

The underlying learning philosophy is very much the ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL) I mentioned before.   Learning retention is higher for ‘Just-in-time’ rather than ‘Just-in-case’ learning.    See ‘ARL approach’, ‘Learning Sustainability’ and ‘Action Learning in Action’ .

The more important reflection is that I can let go better.   It is driven by my rising inclination to work with ‘what is in the room’ rather than ‘what I prepare’ or even ‘what is on the PPT’.   The fact that I have spent majority of my time on executive coaching certainly contributes to this inclination.

I am curious how else I could be different in the future….  Let the learning continues.