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Down To Business: In A World Of Gray, Why Do We Tend To See Black And White?

It's not that believing deeply in something is inherently wrong or pigheaded. But don't let your IT predispositions undercut your ability to weigh evidence that supports a different view.
In their 1979 book "The Brethren," Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong tell the story of infighting and influence peddling on the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren Burger. While the justices on the right (Burger, William Rehnquist) and left (William Brennan, William Douglas, Thurgood Marshall) garnered most of the public's attention at the time, the real power, the authors maintain, emanated from the center, where the likes of Potter Stewart, Byron White, and Lewis Powell tipped the balance one way or the other based on their interpretation of the issues at hand more than their ideological bents.

It's not that believing deeply in something is inherently wrong or pigheaded. Some of our nation's most dynamic leaders have been stout of heart and mind; some of our least effective ones have been wafflers. But when your predispositions undercut your ability to collaborate and compromise and weigh evidence that supports a different point of view, your belief system quickly devolves into the realm of bias and prejudice. It's the difference between conviction and blind obedience. And it's counterproductive, especially in the world of business.

And let's face it: Nowhere is this culture more apparent than in IT, where zealotry is often worn like a badge of honor. Visit any online tech forum on subjects such as Linux and open source, network neutrality, patents, the state of the labor market, digital rights management, privacy--and anything having to do with Microsoft and Apple. They're rife with rants and soliloquies from IT pros, young and old, who claim to know it all and refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of someone having a different opinion not borne of self-interest or ignorance. Why let facts and logic get in the way of fanatical devotion?

Some take sides even when sides needn't be taken. Software as a service becomes a referendum on IT control. Offshoring morphs into a lecture on illegal immigration, national competitiveness, and corporate greed. It's either all good or all bad--no room for an honest discussion.

We're all guilty at one time or another of holding to a narrow view. It's part ego, part resistance to change. You'd think that those people with the highest IQs--those who fancy themselves open-minded and intellectually nimble--would be more likely to rise above such intractability. But the opposite seems to be the case.

Much research has been done on the subject of bias in media consumption and production. In one study, reported by The Washington Post, researchers showed TV news clips on the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon to 144 pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students at Stanford University. Not only did the pro-Palestinian viewers see more bias toward Israel and pro-Israeli viewers see more bias toward Palestinians, but the people who were the most informed about the conflict were the most intent on digging in their heels.

In a 2001 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece claiming liberal bias among media pros, former CBS News insider Bernard Goldberg made this observation: "The media elites can float through their personal lives and rarely run into someone with an opposing view. This is very unhealthy and sometimes downright ridiculous, as when Pauline Kael, for years the brilliant film critic at The New Yorker, was completely baffled about how Richard Nixon could have beaten George McGovern in 1972: 'Nobody I know voted for Nixon.' Never mind that Nixon carried 49 states." Of course, the same insularity is rampant in conservative business circles, where everyone inhales the same rarefied air and what's written on those very same Wall Street Journal editorial pages is taken as gospel.

Whether it's with the media or with one another, how many of us really venture outside our comfort zones, our inner circle of influencers, our preconceived notions of what is accurate, actionable, and fair? If we open our minds, we might just learn something.

Rob Preston, VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.