The Thought Terminating Clichés of Work

Content: a reflection on thought terminating clichés in work – with an explanation from Wikipedia up front

I had the delight of learning a new term recently.

A thought-terminating cliché is a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to end cognitive dissonance(discomfort experienced when one simultaneously holds two or more conflicting cognitions, e.g. ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions). Though the phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating. It basically tries to stop an argument from proceeding further

The term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton said, “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Wikipedia

That might seem a large chunk to take from Wikipedia but this concept is one of the more interesting I’ve come across in some time. A good example is ‘Brexit means Brexit’. That’s meant to close down a conversation by providing certainty (a certainty that history has rapidly shown doesn’t exist). You hear similar things in the workplace…

  • It is what it is
  • We are where we are
  • It’s common sense
  • We’ve already had this conversation
  • It’s all relative

All of these can be used to suggest the conversation is done – when we know the conversation isn’t done. They sound like complete thoughts, but the reality is that it is a bit more complicated than that. And they are hard to challenge.

My team will testify that I, in particular, hate the statement ‘we are where we are’. That invites the following questions for me

  • Why are we there?
  • Who got us here?
  • Do they know it’s the wrong place?
  • Have we made sure the next place they take us isn’t going to be wrong?
  • How often do they take us to the wrong place?
  • How would we have ended up in a better place?
  • Does everyone understand that ending up in the wrong place is sometimes inevitable, but can’t be a habit?

But the statement is designed to end those conversations due to being a straightforward assertion of position. There is nothing to be done so move on. But moving on is your choice.

So I guess the point of this blog is threefold

i) it’s an interesting term, so I thought I’d share it

ii) Now you know about it you will spot it everywhere. And it is probably about 50% of all tweets…and 90% of political utterances

iii) You can decide to stop closing down other people (if you do so) and can challenge others doing it (if so inclined)

It is what it is.

Leading is tough…

On January 2nd a well fed version of me plopped down at my desk full of good intentions. And before I got to answering emails and walking about wishing people New Year I took some time out to think about accountability, collaboration and trust.

Before Christmas I’d queried someone’s decison on something and I wasn’t really content with their response. It just wasn’t the one I’d want them to make… That happens a lot, but I guess I it was one of the last things I did before shutting down. Before Christmas. It wasn’t a big decison, but it’s one where I can’t see something working out… And if I’d gone back and queried again that would have sent a clear messages. As it was they probably didn’t even notice.

So here is what I’ve been thinking

i) I get paid more than most people in the organisation – and that pay should be commensurate with me taking more accountability. If something goes wrong in my area I expect to be held accountable.

ii) But I want the people in my area to feel trusted and backed to make decisions

iii) But sometimes I can see problems coming down the line and in fact, I’m more experienced that most in spotting that (as I’ve made more mistakes than most), which is part of the reason why I get paid more than most.

iv) I’m also accountable for setting standards for my area – which can arguably conflict with ii)

So I’m sitting here waiting for things to progress and either me to be proved wrong (it happens) or to see how the person reacts if I turn out to be right. What I’m not doing is using a hierarchy to ensure what I think should happen happens. But maybe I should because I’m still accountable.

So I’m probably in this instance accountable for allowing some risk to help ensure continuity of trust. And then I have to ask if that’s the right thing to do for the people the organisation serves.

I guess I’m writing this because it’s about such a tiny, tiny thing. But most days are made up of similar choices but over much bigger things.

  • How much are things decided by a group vs me being paid to apply my judgement?
  • What do I let go vs what do I make a clear statement on?
  • What do I find time for vs how do I protect time to think?
  • How much is too much oversight vs how much of not having oversight is negligence

And it’s similar for anyone who leads a group of people. But I don’t think that complexity is always reflected by the experts commentating on the roles we do. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching the football pundits that you know failed to make it in management or never even attempted that role. You can speak with easily adopted authority if you’ve never had to make the same mistakes that we face (and make) each day.

‘What the modern leader needs to do is just…‘.

‘Yeah. But I’d like to see you try…’

You don’t give someone a four/nine box model and away they go… You don’t just say ‘Embrace your autonomy’ and everything turns out fine. You wrestle with this stuff every single day. And if you are me you go home and replay each day in your head second guessing each decison you made and then still come in the next day trying to give people confidence that you know what you are doing. A constant balance of unpicking and stepping forward. Because I’m paid to be good at stuff for people and I’m accountable for that.

So this is just a mini plea to the people writing/talking about leadership. Unless you do this stuff (and I mean you lead teams now – not have a rose tinted recollection of doing it half a decade ago) if you could mix some humility and understanding in with the insight that would be awesome. Because most of us know we aren’t perfect already.

And if you read this and think it is about you, but isn’t fair, then it wasn’t about you so it’s all good here.

Final thought – since I drafted this blog it turns out that my initial instinct was correct. However I’m not stupid enough to think there are countless examples every single day where the opposite is true. But on this one… Well, if you have made the same mistake multiple times you spot it when someone else is going to make it.