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Insanity in individuals is something rare, but in groups,
parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule

                        Friedrich Nietzsche
                        German Philosopher 1844-1900

Insane people are always sure they are fine.
It is only the sane people who are willing to admit they are crazy.

                        Nora Ephron
                        Film Director, Producer and Screenwriter


Within the fruits of your success lie the seeds of your failure.

                        Larry Dille
                        Retired Executive Producer



ACM DL Author-ize serviceThe business of software: Contagious craziness, spreading sanity
Phillip G. Armour
Communications of the ACM - A View of Parallel Computing, 2009

The Looniness of High Command                           

It is a well-documented feature of business (and other) leadership that, as you get higher in up the corporate ladder, you tend to get exposed to less and less "reality" and more and more carefully doctored and stage-managed data and scenarios.  These are often carefully scripted by the leader's subordinates for several reasons: for personal advancement, to suck up to the boss, to avoid conflict, and many other mostly self-serving reasons.

The bosses are often consciously or unconsciously collusive in this.  Few people attain positions of status and control in modern companies by being shy and retiring.  Most executives are highly opinionated and very forceful in delivering and defending those opinions.  When this combination of drive and will-power is coupled with skill and expertise and the person attains a position of significant power and control, what was an asset can prove to be a liability.

When executives are convicted that they are right, they may set up a system that can continually reinforce that sense of rightness even if it is clearly, well, wrong

Crazy Is as Crazy Does it to You                               

When a boss, given the often skewed version of reality given to him or her, decides that white is black or black is white, the people nearby (usually subordinates) have two choices:

  1. Label the behavior as crazy, and the opinion as wrong.  This course of action may run the risk or significant repercussions, like being ignored, being demoted or getting fired.
  2. Agree that the behavior is ok. This is often the "safest" course of action--it avoids confronting the boss and makes the person agreeing look like a "team-player".

The problem with choice 2. is that, in order to maintain intellectual integrity, the person agreeing with the boss must often rearrange his or her own analysis, logic, and conclusions.  Otherwise, the person is faced with holding two different opinions at the same time: the boss is right and the boss is wrong.  The stress caused by these contradictory views is called cognitive dissonance and people are known to perform impressive mental gymnastics to get out of the situation.

 Cognitive Dissonance and Viral Insanity                        

People have a great resistance to actively holding contradictory propositions in their minds at the same time.  To alleviate the stress caused by cognitive dissonance, they have to build up a mental framework that supports the view they choose to (or have to) take.  When your boss holds to some insane idea or approach the chain goes like this:

  • I have to agree with the boss to safeguard my job.
  • I am not a yes man (or woman).
  • I have integrity and independence of thought.
  • Therefore my agreeing with the boss isn't just for self-serving purposes--his ideas do have merit.
  • Focusing on the positive aspects of the ideas (and carefully ignoring the negatives), allows me to start believing that the ideas are actually good and that I should be agreeing with them.
  • My view of my personal integrity means that I also have to carefully interpret the above: I cannot for instance admit that I am ignoring certain facts and over-emphasizing other facts.  In fact, I may carefully select what I look at so that I am only looking at facts which allow me to continue agreeing.  This is a process called confirmatory bias--the selection of data that only supports the view I want to take.
  • I will further emphasize this data-biasing to any of my subordinates so that they do not end up contradicting me and therefore showing up my irrational behavior.  This has the effect of doing to my subordinates what my boss did to me.
  • Gradually, starting from the top, the entire organization starts separating from reality.

Weird behavior, it seems, is contagious.


Contagious Craziness, Spreading Sanity