Beyond dogmatism: 6 ways to move towards understanding

Consider the following questions:

  • Have you ever had those conversations where it felt as if you were standing on a mountain hollering at the sky?
  • Had a debate where there was there a lot of noise and no understanding?
  • Or witnessed two people so entrenched in their positions that nothing could be gained? Both had their positions and passionately defended it

If the answer was ‘yes’ to any of the above, you have encountered dogmatism in all its sullen glory.

the tendency to lay down principles as undeniably true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.
As in: “a culture of dogmatism and fanaticism”

Dogmatism can be a pretty nasty thing. When a person claims a position to the exclusion of reason and refuses to see value in things that are outside their cherished beliefs they effectively shut themselves off from growth. They may still function perfectly adequately, but their position effectively closes off the possibility of discussion and learning.

One of the common areas that you might see dogmatic entrenchment is in either politics or religion. For an absolutely fascinating study in dogmatism cloaked in respectability watch the clip below. Both men are never going to change their position, but the debate is amazing. When you listen to it, both participants sound like they are talking about completely different things – yet they both are responding to the same topic. It doesn’t really matter your viewpoint on the subject, as a study in communication it is incredible.

Whilst our workplace and team-room conversations may have different foci and not be about things as important as religion or politics, it is easy to encounter dogmatic positions. How familiar does this list sound?

  • React vs Angular
  • Scrum vs Kanban
  • Relative estimation vs #noestimates
  • Certification vs Self driven learning
  • Vi vs Emacs
  • Tabs vs Spaces

Hopefully, you got a few chuckles in. I would be shocked if you hadn’t encountered a few of these. Each has its values and merits, for an outsider, can be a little pointless. Neither is right or wrong, they often come down to a preference or belief. The arguments over trivialities is known as the narcissism of small differences. All ways are correct, but ours is the correct way.

Sometimes the differences are much more profound. Again not going into politics or religion:

  • Project management office vs product management situated in teams
  • Environment protection vs business need
  • Strong growth vs sustainability
  • Regulation vs a free market

We have fought wars over these kinds of differences, or in the least, held heated debates. Proponents of both sides draw lines in the sand and shout at each other. There exist points of commonality and value in both, but neither side can see it. Sometimes one side might be on the wrong side of history or morality.

1) Focus on commonalities

Language and common goals matter. Focusing on difference pulls people further apart. Focusing on common ground and moving forward together pulls them together. The differences matter less in light of a common goals and values.

I grew up in a very religious family. Oft times discussions of the various Christian denominations would arise. We would talk about how a particular style of faith was “wrong” for some of the beliefs that were held.

The theological differences aren’t important, and are meaningless to anyone outside of the community. It at times felt like an us and them and them. At the heart of it though, we all held a belief in redemption and grace. Did it matter that they thought communion meant one thing or another? Not really.

About 15 years ago, the various charismatic Protestant movements in Australia came together to form Australian Christian Churches and have moved from useless debate to moving together. The act revitalised a faith struggling to deal with modernity. The common ground held all has transformed disparate efforts to be relevant into a force to be reckoned with.

Our differences in the agile community are equally meaningless to others outside the circle.

We need to genuinely look for the common ground. There is often strength in both sides of our arguments. Most of the time, the answer is “it depends.” The way forward is leaning on what truly supports our teams and businesses.

Another example useless argument is the frameworks vs people skills debate raging at moment. It is a fool’s errand. Neither function optimally without the support of other. A framework that is implemented without thought to people or culture will fail. People skills to make everybody happy deliver little value without focus and structure. Finding the middle ground is where real value and potential can be discovered.

Let’s not pretend finding the common ground is easy. Having the courage to question your own belief is hard.

Challenge yourself today. Identify something in someone’s agile practice that makes you uncomfortable. Look for the reasons and the beliefs. Find where you can come along side and together do more.

Challenge: Find the alliances that make you stronger together.

2) Expand your circle

As societies in the western world we still have some ways to go on the diversity front. We have made great strides though. I have seen this attributed to the “Aunt Judy” effect.

50 years ago in a number of what are pluralistic societies, the thought of an Episcopalian marrying a Catholic, an atheist or a person from a completely non-Judeo-Christian faith was completely unthinkable, but then what I’ve heard as Aunt Judy effect occurred.

Some iconoclasts started moving across defined lines and when families started (albeit slowly) accepting these “outsiders” into their families, they began finding common ground. “Aunt Judy doesn’t believe in x, but she is a good person, so how can she be bad?” “Aunt Judy is a Y, maybe not all Ys are bad…”.

Rather than shouting about differences families were able to move to a point of respect and relationship. As one family changed, so did another. Eventually we see deep-seated change and together we grow better as a community.

We can see this in our workplaces as well. The ol’ boys club still exists. Think about the recent scandals at Uber and the developer’s memo at Google. Moving beyond this is positive. Teams with diversity are more creative.

When we enlarge our circle, we increase our areas of empathy. When we increase our empathy, distinctions like us and them matter less and dogmatism falls away in the face of understanding.

Challenge: Make an effort to meet with someone outside of your immediate circle that you wouldn’t socialize with

3) Expose yourself to alternative points of view

Do you live in an information bubble? When did you last read a piece of writing that offended you? Have you listened to or watched something in the last seven days that challenged you or your beliefs? Who were the last 10 people you talked to Agile about? Were they practitioners?

If you haven’t been challenged or been exposed to someone with a radically different view of the world that you, perhaps you are suffering from the echo chamber effect.

It is now possible to be completely saturated by opinions that reflect your own points of view. In the recent US presidential election, entire swathes of the population saw only ads that supported their candidate. Their opponents’ supporters never saw the attack ads.  Indeed this was noted to be happening in other OECD elections such as the UK general election.

The problem is that many of these ads contained gross inaccuracies that could never be addressed by the people they targeted.

When we live in an echo chamber where every belief is reinforced, our minds become rigid, our beliefs fixed and our implementations dogmatic. We have moved into the danger zone.

We see this from time to time in the agile space. It may shock some people, but project management is still alive, kicking and going strong. Courses in traditional style of project planning and Gantt charts and Microsoft Project all exist and are indeed flourishing.

The thing is these ideas persist for a reason. I am a torch-wielding peasant when it comes to Gantt charts, but I recognise the appeal of these pretty little lines denoting hand offs. I don’t disparage people who choose to use them. They are struggling to find some just a little bit of the world that they feel that they can control.

Are there better ways to track a project over time? Almost definitely. Do I get anywhere by just saying “Bad, bad, bad!”? Not at all. There is something to take from it, for me it tells me that we need to provide visibility and transparency to people trying to deal with complex interrelated system where pressures from above are real.

By not just ruling it out, instead looking at why the thing exists, we can reach a place of understanding.

Are there opportunities for you in your current workplace to look at practices that feel wrong to you? When you find them, look at the reasons that underlie the action.

Challenge: Read an article today that challenges your thinking  OR find a practice you don’t like and look for the underlying “Why”

4) Always with respect

I once worked with a manager whose favourite line was, “It isn’t rocket science…” It is one of my most hated clichés. I still find it so disrespectful.

Here’s the rub. It might not be “rocket science”, but in whatever you do unless you know what you are doing, it is completely as if it is rocket science.

People come with baggage, opinions, learning and life experience. So do you. Your experience and learning is different from everyone else, but unless you can acknowledge the validity of theirs, they have no reason to listen to you. Approach them with disrespect and you will never reach the person.

Empathy matters.

Often, we talk about agile transformation through invitation. When we dogmatically address something the pull becomes push, and we lose effectiveness.

Dogmatism lends itself to religious zeal. Be humble and remember their lives matter. Focus on respect and zeal falls to understanding.

challenge: focus on self-awareness when talking to others, if you feel yourself devaluing someone else’s experience, look at why

5) It isn’t about winning

… strong opinions, weakly held. – Paul Saffron

Let me make a confession, I’m a pretty opinionated person. On topics important to me, I will passionately debate a position. I don’t always move easily.

Let me make another confession. I am not always right and I know it. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but passion does not always mean I have all the facts or that my reasoning is sound. I can still be dogmatic when I’m not paying attention though, but work hard to remain open to my own error. You see, it is hard to be dogmatic when you admit fallibility.

A dogmatic person will argue to win.  Arguments are always a zero sum game. I win, you lose. A dogmatic person looks unassailable, but there is a certain fragility to their position. The arguments they win invariably result in loss. It may be respect, friendship, disengagement, acquiescence, or cooperation. It is intangible, but definitely loss.

The loss is from the dogmatic person’s ability to bend and flex with changing requirements.

There is a way past this. Start focusing on the opportunities not to defend, but move to the Yes, and….

Yes, and… is a well-known improv technique. When two players are on a stage one will suggest something outrageous and the other will say, “Yes, and …” trying to make it even more interesting. Where a “no” or a “yes, but” closes off the conversation, yes, and… opens up all sorts of possibilities.

How does yes, and… move you beyond dogmatism? Dogmatism is about taking a stance to the exclusion of all others. When you say, “yes, and…”, you force yourself to be open to other possibilities. If you truly in your point of view, you will work to see how it fits, not how it rules.

Basically you move from a win/lose scenario to one where you work together to a given end.

There are other benefits such as unlocking creativity, empowering others and creating team buy-in, but the big one in this instance is moving beyond rigidity to truly responding to change.

challenge: find a situation you can apply a “yes, and…” and do it!

6) Listen to learn

One of the techniques in psychological therapy is to passively listen as a patient works their way through to a solution. The thought is, most times a patient knows what to do. They merely need to verbalize the solution and action it.

In coding, we have a strategy of problem solving called “rubber ducking it”. Where a programmer explains to a non-human entity, albeit a rubber duck, pet dog or prize pig, the issue they are facing and the problems they are having in their reasoning. The very act of explanation allows the person’s mind to work on the problem and show the connections they were missing.

Often our teams work in very similar ways. We might “know” how to “fix” a team. Sure, we bring a wealth of experience with us. We can certainly push it on them.

The thing is, most times, the team also knows how to fix the problems. It isn’t about enforcing a solution, but letting the team reach a home-grown one that works for them. They know their problems.

Most teams I have worked with are full of capable, insightful people, the problems more often than not relate to communication.

Listen to your team. Give them space to discover, discuss and resolve the issues. Facilitate and not dictate. Let them own the problem space. Don’t dogmatically enforce the “right” way to fix their issues, let them approach change from a deeper perspective.

Their change starts within. You enable it when you listen.

challenge: the next time you find yourself giving a solution, don’t. Draw the solution out of the person instead. It will be much more meaningful for both of you.

Comment on how you move forward when you find yourself being dogmatic. How do you foster the self-awareness and an openness? Join us on the coalition and have your say today.

Brad Stokes

I am at heart a developer. I've been participating in an agile environment for a little over two years. I've done waterfall and never want to return. I'm always good for a chat and willing to look at the agile world with openness and honesty.