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Management of the Absurd

Foreword by Michael Crichton

About The Book

An original, contrarian philosophy that challenges today's leaders to look past the quick fix and deal thoughtfully with the real complexities of managing people.
In organizations, as in life, human behavior is often irrational -- and problems do not easily lend themselves to the simplistic answers and gimmickry offered in the myriad business "self-help" books and management training programs available today. In Management of the Absurd, Richard Farson zeros in on the paradoxes of communication, the politics of management, and the dilemmas of change, exploring relationships within organizations and offering a unique perspective on the challenges managers face.


Chapter 1: The Opposite of a Profound Truth Is Also True

Our great achievements in science, law, government, and in every intellectual pursuit are dependent upon our development as rational, logical thinkers.

But this kind of thinking has also limited us. Without quite knowing it, we have become creatures of linear, categorical logic. Things are good or bad, true or false, but not both. We have been taught that a thing cannot be what it is and also its opposite. Yet it sounds wise when confronted with a conflict to say, "Well, yes and no." Or, "It's both." We've all heard statements that concede the coexistence of opposites: Less is more. Living is dying. Hating is loving. Although it seems illogical, no two things are as closely related as opposites.

Going in Both Directions

What practical value can we get out of that notion? At a mundane level, take, for example, the development of frozen food processing. It led to a rash of predictions about the growth of a fast-food market -- predictions that certainly turned out to be correct. What was not predicted, however, was the popularity of gourmet cookbooks, with their emphasis on fresh ingredients, organically grown products, wholesome preparation, and a new respect for chefs. Frozen food processing made possible the development of fast food, but along with that development came its opposite.

We have seen the coexistence of opposites in management with the introduction of participative approaches designed to democratize the workplace. These approaches often do increase worker participation. But it is also true that hierarchy and authority remain very much in place, perhaps stronger than ever. That is because the executives who grant the work force some amount of authority never lose any of their own authority. Granting authority is not like handing out a piece of pie, wherein you lose what you give away. It is more like what happens when you give information to someone. Although he or she may now know more, you do not know any less.

Practical Deceptions

Another coexistence of opposites: To be healthy, an organization needs full and accurate communication among its members. But also, to be healthy, it needs distortion and deception. If those words sound overly harsh, think of commonly used terms like diplomacy and tact, which imply less than candid communication.

Just as the profession of medicine or the conduct of a romance requires mystique -- that is, encouraging beliefs about oneself that may not be completely accurate but make others feel positively -- so, too, do leadership and management. Some, for example, hold that one function of middle management is to massage or filter information, both upward and downward. Such "distortion" or "deception" is said to serve two practical purposes.

First, workers are led to believe that their leaders are confident, fair, and capable, reinforcing the necessary myths of leadership. Second, since the top leaders surely would be troubled by knowing everything that goes on in the organization, they are protected from hearing about the petty problems and minor failures of the work force.

In human affairs, some form of deception is the rule, not the exception. In most cases it should not be considered lying, because that term fails to take into account the complexity of human communication and the many ways people must maneuver to keep relationships on an even keel. Appreciating the coexistence of opposites helps us understand that honesty and deception can function together in some paradoxical way.

Contradictory Impulses

One executive I know is a classic example of a man who wants to succeed but at the same time seems to want to fail. Everything he does carries both messages. From the very moment he enthusiastically volunteers to head a project, he operates in such a way as to cripple it -- refusing to delegate, undermining the work of committees, failing to meet deadlines, and stalling on crucial decisions.

His behavior is not that unusual. Contradictory impulses to both succeed and fail can be found in every project, every work team, even every individual. Every management choice, job offer, or new applicant can appear both appealing and unappealing. Every deal is both good and bad. That is why leadership is essentially the management of dilemmas, why tolerance for ambiguity -- coping with contradictions -- is essential for leaders, and why appreciating the coexistence of opposites is crucial to the development of a different way of thinking.

Like One

There is yet another spin to this paradox that I have always found intriguing -- that opposites not only can coexist, but can even enhance one another. Take pleasure and pain, for example. Scratching an itch is both. Not pleasure, then pain, or pain, then pleasure, but both at once. Granted, scratching an itch too long can become very painful and no longer pleasurable, but there is a moment when they coexist, when they are one. Like truth and falsity, good and evil.

Copyright © 1996 by Richard Farson

About The Author

Dr. Richard Farson has led several organizations noted for innovative programs. Farson helped found the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in 1958 and remains its president. In this capacity he directs its International Leadership Forum, an Internet-based think tank that brings influential leaders together to consider critical policy issues. A University of Chicago Ph.D. in psychology, Farson has been a Naval officer, college dean, research director, organizational consultant, and a member of the Human Relations Faculty of the Harvard Business School. He is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed Management of the Absurd, now published in 11 languages. He lives in La Jolla, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 13, 1997)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684830445

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Raves and Reviews

Fortune If you are willing to look at your life, your career, and your company from an entirely fresh angle, this book may provide more surprises and insights than you will find in any ten other management tomes that appear this year.

Tom Peters This may be the best book on leadership I've ever read.

Chicago Tribune Lively...compelling...perfectly suited for a world bursting with absurdity and paradox.

Robert Kuttner Economics columnist, Business Week A succinct and charming book on the nuances of leadership. Stands out from the usual homilies about how to be a manager -- a work of humanity and wisdom.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Every once in a while, someone writes a management book that throws all current thought on the subject out the window. Such is the case with Management of the Absurd. Well-written and easy to absorb.

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