Systematically seeking the other viewpoint

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 22, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

I was pulled up short last week. A new book arrived from Amazon called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn and I was delighted to see it. I’d heard about the title from one of David Maister’s podcasts (actually I get most of my book recommendations from bloggers I respect). I flicked through the table of contents nodding at chapter titles like “The Trouble with Carrots” and “Pay for Performance: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Workforce.” Then it struck me: “I’m only reading things that confirm my current beliefs.” I quickly looked at my lists of regular blog reads—the same! Dang! “Note to self: actively seek out alternative views.”

So perhaps you can help me out. After I read Punished by Rewards, what is the best alternative view?

I think my strategy will be simple. Contact the best known proponent for an idea that I agree with and ask them who they think mounts the most robust arguments against their view (I’m always amazed at how many of these intellectual super stars reply to my emails). Hmmm. They’ll probably dislike this person and reject their point of view outright. It will be more difficult than I first thought.

How do you seek out the alternative view? Do you do it systematically?

Here are a few opposing ideologies (probably too strong a word and too simplistic) that I’m aware of that are relevant to my interests.

complexity — rationalism
Polanyi — Popper
constructivism – cognitive science
behaviourism — (still learning about this one)

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Ron Lubensky says:

    A while back I came up with these contrasting aspects in the context of deliberative capacity. Atlas Shrugged aside, are there really books out there that directly promote a deterministic, positivist, elitist, authoritarian approach to business or life? Folk-guides to sales and executive success (I haven’t read them either) surely don’t mention those terms, but they probably underline the prescriptions. I’d posit that anybody who reflects (and writes) deeply about determinism, etc. isn’t deeply deterministic, etc.

  2. joitske says:

    Very recognisable! It struck me once when someone said that he purposely tried to get people in communities of practice that he doesn’t like at all, because these are often the people with contradictory views to your views. This is hard.. Again there may be value in doing both. By reading about what you already believe in, you sharpen your ideas.

  3. I like that approach and I try to practice it as much as possible/reasonable. Two comments:
    For the rewards book: as this is explicitely a contrarian view to an established idea, you might want to check the original which it tries to disprove. In my experience, the original paper or book is often better than later versions about the same theme.
    Hard to identify, though, for such an “obvious” commonplace idea. Where does it come from?
    But worse: in general, there are not always clear dichotomies, but several competing theories which are not direct antipodes. The opposites of / alternatives to “rewarding” are “laissez faire”, “deep understanding”, “bi- and multilateral negotiation”, “bureaucracy”, “free market”, and more. Supporting factors for “rewarding” may come from animal studies (Pawlow’s dog), (human) psychology, pure speculative ideas (wouldn’t it be nice and logical if…), abductive empiricism (company X’s share price is going up. They say that they have a policy to pay for performance, hence…), and many more sources.
    Sorry, I don’t think that it’s so clear. The best possibe way out might to a small collection of alternative views, without trying to find the exact antipode.

  4. Shawn says:

    Excellent ideas gents. Thanks muchly. Your so right about the absence of simple dichotomies. Life is so much messier.

  5. ken says:

    Well, google is your friend, but these days it typically takes us to wikipedia – but that’s not a bad source as they like to present critiques, usually at the bottom of the page, though little about Alfie, for that go to the discussion page.
    Some simple things…
    – know thyself – we can’t know all theories, but can know how it feels to be “persuaded” by rhetoric/pitch (a al Cialdini)
    – follow the money (is the book trying to sell anything – cui bono and caveat emptor 😉
    – follow the metaphor, hows it framed
    – follow the research, where’d he get his phd, who was his supervisor, and his/her supervisor, what branch did they rebel against/move away-from
    – follow the references…
    In the book he tries to do a fair bit of this himself, going to talk to Skinner, countering reviews since the book came out etc. The book you picked has got a pretty comprehensive collection of notes and references – how do you think he did in addressing the critiques?
    If you like it, you might want to follow up with some John Taylor Gatto (ring them pavlovian bells 🙂

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