From a ‘C’ to an ‘A’ – Can Your Managers Do What This Professor Did?

The University of Kentucky wanted to make sure that I was a well rounded student, which meant I had to take “Politics of Third World Countries” even though I was an engineering major. It wasn’t so bad. Until it came time to write a paper for the class.

We had to read a book called “I, Rigoberta Menchu”, about a woman in Guatemala whose tribe got crushed by the advancement of civilization. It was ten years ago that I read the book, so forgive me if I miss some details about it all. You can tell what it is about by reading the editorial review from Amazon. Here is a key part:

The celebration of her ancient culture is all that strengthens in the face of a brutally repressed and poverty-stricken existence. Two of her brothers die as infants from malnutrition. When the Quiche begin their fight to keep the government and big-business people from stealing any more of their land, her family is forced to watch her youngest brother be tortured and burned alive; later her mother is tortured to death, and her father murdered.

My professor, a Political Science PhD candidate, was pretty far left, and I’m sure she felt that this book would make us all pity Menchu and her people. But I really didn’t.

From what I remember about the book, her tribe continually rejected opportunities to educate their children and to use new technologies to make their lives easier. Yes, some people manipulated them and took advantage of them, but some people also tried to help them out and the tribe never took advantage of the help. I remember a particular passage in which Menchu talked about not wanting to use new cooking technologies, because her ancestors had always made bread a certain way, and they wanted to keep doing it that way.

Ultimately, I’m a pragmatist when it comes to issues of cultural and political change. So when it came time to write my paper, I wrote that I didn’t feel sorry for Menchu and her tribe because they didn’t change with the times. And while all that tradition sounded very noble and idealistic, the rest of the world was changing, and the tribe was ignoring it rather than adapting to it.

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When my paper was returned, it had a big red ‘C’ on it. It was scribbled out, and had an ‘A’ along with a note, that I will paraphrase as best I can remember.

Rob, when I first read your paper, your lack of compassion for Rigoberta and her tribe disturbed me. But as I re-read it, I realized that even though I don’t agree with your views, the paper is well written and you supported your arguments thoroughly with evidence from the book. I think you deserve an A.

I was surprised. She had reacted exactly how a college professor should react (but they rarely do), and graded the paper without letting her views influence the final outcome.

This is relevant to business because managers, like college professors, often want to wield their power more than they want to search for the truth. Bosses don’t tolerate dissension, and instead reward sycophants while punishing dissenters. In my experience though, the truth is rarely as black and white as people make it seem, and dissenting views often expose important qualities of a decision that need to be considered.

What is it like at your workplace? Do the bosses buddies get the perks and promotions? Can your boss acknowledge that you have a sound argument even if leads to the outcome that he/she didn’t really prefer? Do you discuss and debate decisions with a real open mind, and make your choices based on quality of arguments, or do you just rubber stamp decisions to please the boss?

It took real intellectual integrity to do what my professor did. And I think such intellectual integrity ultimately leads to better business decisions. More companies should adopt the attitude of Voltaire, when he wrote that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

You think that dissenting views may show that you are wrong, and being wrong will hurt your career. The truth though, is the exactly the opposite. Pursue good decision making processes, and your reputation for being reasonable and honest will carry you far.