Shaving with Hanlon's razor

Something I noticed early in my rock & roll years was how much conflict arose in bands from simple misunderstandings. Especially when musicians ascribed the worst possible motives to each other’s behavior.

Perhaps it was the dangerously high levels of testosterone in the air at the time. Or the fragile egos of 20-something-year-old “artists.” But if someone did something that bothered you, you would take it personally, and retaliate.

This was obvious with many classic rock groups I had a chance to observe up close—for example, Eric Clapton’s Cream in a 1968 concert. Whenever Jack Bruce, the bassist, turned up the volume on his Marshall amplifier, Ginger Baker, the drummer, took it personally and pounded his kit with greater ferocity, pushing Clapton on guitar to angrily crank up his volume. An inevitable arms race in decibel production ensued, to the detriment of the tympanic membranes of audience members.

I heard about it with other top bands too, even The Beatles. Their associates told me of the interpersonal disharmony, especially in their last year together, fed by the growing distrust between Lennon and McCartney and between McCartney and Harrison. Lennon even came to believe that McCartney wouldn't put in the effort to get Lennon’s tunes to sound at their best because of competitive jealousy. Lennon claimed that some of his greatest songs, like "Across the Universe," were given short shrift in the end. After the band broke up, they sniped at each other in the press and in songs, before later reconciliations.

Of course this phenomenon is not peculiar to the music world. When I started consulting to business—in finance, health insurance, mining, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, etc.—I encountered it everywhere within organizational teams and began to point out its dangers.

But it wasn’t until 15 years ago that I heard about a simple axiom to combat it: Hanlon’s Law. (For the derivation of the term see here.) This principle suggests that when someone does something that thwarts your objective, you don’t need to assume bad faith. Simply stated, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance"—or incompetence, lack of awareness, miscommunication, etc. The snarky version is: "Don’t attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

Hanlon’s Law is also known as Hanlon’s razor, because a razor, philosophically speaking, is a principle that allows you to "shave off" unlikely explanations for a situation. (A famous one is Occam’s razor which advocates that when evaluating competing explanations for a given situation, you should select the simplest one, with the fewest assumptions or variables.)

Hanlon’s razor is a practical principle to consider when a coworker does something to thwart your intention and your first reaction is to take the "affront" personally. I knew a Chief Accounting Officer who never said hello to anyone he passed in the hallway, leaving the impression with some employees that he had no use for them—and that perhaps their days in the company were numbered! But it turned out that he was just lost in thought, always worrying about the company's financials, and oblivious to everyone who walked by.

Now there are those occasions when that other individual or group actually does want to do you ill. But if so, you might want to find out why and see if there’s some justification for it from their point of view. They may be assuming malice from you because they misinterpreted something you did. (Maybe they took your last email—or a comment you made in a meeting—the wrong way. It could be anything.) Not presuming negative intent is especially important in a team or organization that needs to work closely together to produce a difficult but important outcome in an impossible timeframe. (That probably sums up your business.)

As a side note: we should approach the whole subject of motivation with a little humility. We’re learning from neuroscience that we can’t fully understand our own motives for doing things, let alone others'. A topic for another post.

Obviously this habit of ascribing sinister purposes to others’ actions occurs beyond the workplace. We’ve probably all witnessed personal relationships break down—even among families—because of that default habit of assuming the worst motives. And sometimes those breaks are permanent. We see this playing out in larger entities as well, in institutions and even nations. As we speak.

One unfortunate outcome of our failure to consider Hanlon’s razor is the blizzard of conspiracy theories we face. At the root of them is an assumption that some group or entity—usually a large entity—is out to do us evil. (Another cause is apophenia: the tendency to see meaningful patterns in random events.) One could argue that the toxicity of divisive rhetoric in the nation and world right now can be traced in large part to our failure to apply, or even consider, Hanlon’s razor.

For more detailed information on the subject check this out.


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5 Comments

  1. I spent a fair amount of time with you in the "lab" surrounded by music minded 20-somethings. Ultimately, we produced good work in rehearsal, recording studios and live. Looking back, it was not time wasted. My go to tactic when I perceive a personal affront, is to wait two days and see if it still matters. This gives the blood time to return to room temperature. Thanks for the insights John.

    1. The Band of Angels was certainly one of the least dysfunctional of the dozen or so musical units I participated in, full or part time, in the Olden Days. That sounds like faint praise but it's not. You've practiced Hanlon's razor as well as anyone I've ever worked with.

      Bands are a terrific lab, like any creative work team, for self discovery. Especially if pursuing impossible goals against the clock.

  2. I have two friends, married to each other, who are also retired librarians, though not from the same institution. This topic has been the source of a conversation that has now outlasted their careers. The wife favors incompetence as an explanation, and she is usually right. But when he is right, it's a doozy.

  3. Everybody in my business plays the Hanlon in reverse game. 'She wants to drive me out of the company.' 'He's always had it in for me.' 'Headquarters want's to eliminate us.' It never stops. Of course nobody ever talks to "them" to try to sort it out. It's easier to just whine about it.

    1. Well, there's sometimes a power dynamic that gets in the way, which I should have mentioned. It's trickier to address possible misunderstandings with those who are senior to you in the company. But I always advocate trying.

      If addressing someone in upper management (relative to you) who is doing something that appears hostile to you, you can reference the vision/mission/values of the organization and let that individual know that you don't want any apparent conflicts or misunderstandings to get in the way of fulfilling that vision.

      If the vision or mission of the organization is not well known to everybody, that's a bigger problem.

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