books book reviews

social psychology books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, 7th ed. by M. H. Bazerman and D. A. Moore
Wiley, 2009, 230 pages

I  usually refrain from reading books for which all the reviews I can find have been written by crazy people (Stahl's Essential Psychopharmacology, a fine book that is being read by some very nutty people, comes to mind), but I decided to make an exception in this case.

I first heard of Judgment in an article in a British tabloid about a guy who read it cover to cover while waiting on hold for 18 hours during a phone call to Qantas. Supposedly this is a new record, both for the length of time being placed on hold, and for the greatest amount of stubbornness of anyone ever. Counting the index, the guy's reading speed comes out to 12.7 pages an hour. Whether the low speed can be attributed to the distracting influence of Muzak or some other factor, I can't say. Either this guy has difficulty with making high-level executive decisions, or the book must be quite fascinating indeed.

Although this book is targeted to ‘managers,’ if suitably retitled, it could have been a successful self-help book. Everybody makes bad decisions—some more than others. I've seen managers make some doozies. But the authors marketed it as an academic text, calling the reader a manager throughout the text, and priced it accordingly. A classic example of baaaaad judgment.

Although the pitfalls in human decision-making (bias, bounded awareness, framing, escalation of commitment, etc) are nicely laid out, the examples aren't always convincing. Each chapter starts with a bunch of sample decisions. The reader is asked to provide the best answer, and the rest of the chapter is devoted to explaining why that ‘common’ answer is wrong. Maybe I'm just really, really smart, or maybe the problems weren't tough enough, but I got the correct answer to all of them. The text also suffers from the same cloyingly politically correct style as Freakonomics. If you liked Freakonomics, you'll love this book. If not, you'll probably hate it. Call that another example of confirmation bias.

aug 12, 2012


Group Dynamics & Organizational Culture by Athena Xenikou and Adrian Furnham
Palgrave, 2013, 215 pages

I f you're on a planet by yourself, you can skip this book. But if you are a boss or a manager, or if you ever participate in meetings, or if you know somebody who participates in meetings, you need this book.

The Hawthorne studies in the 1930s showed that social factors were far more important than physical factors like lighting and ventilation in determining productivity. A dysfunctional group dynamic in a work environment can negate the competence of the individuals involved, turning a brainstorming session among a group of pediatricians into the intellectual equivalent of a championship rematch at WWE.

The authors take a research- and evidence-based approach, as opposed to an ideology-based approach, which leads to some insightful conclusions. The primary task of a group, they say, is survival. Groups improve performance on simple tasks, but impair performance on complex tasks. A group always has hidden agendas that reflect struggles for status and power as well as bonding or enmity among the members of the group. Individual anxiety about being evaluated lowers group productivity, as does demotivation caused by bosses stomping on ideas and browbeating subordinates into agreeing with him (or, as the authors euphemistically put it, having a boss who needs to be more positive and supportive).

The tone of the writing is remarkable. There is hardly a single negative statement in the whole book. If nothing else, you will, almost without meaning to, pick up the upbeat patois that is standard (i.e., mandatory) in today's corporations. Occasionally this gets gloopy, with linguistic abominations like “ombudspersons” and sentences like “Organizational culture, representing a system of basic beliefs, values, and practices, can be fundamental in building a coordination mechanism.” But there's also some good, solid psychology here. The focus is to identify scientifically what organizational characteristics and what leadership styles, such as transformational or transactional styles, make a company successful. There are many case studies of realistic situations, and how a good corporate consultant would solve them.

That said, the biggest benefit here is indirect: if managers and HR departments could adopt the practices outlined in this book instead of being the means by which employers abuse and oppress employees, cater to imaginary grievances, and eliminate ‘troublemakers’ (i.e. people who disagree with them), flowers would bloom and the skies would turn blue and we would all hold hands and sway back and forth as we sing We Are the World. And there would be more corporate successes and fewer workplace massacres. And that would be, generally, a good thing.

jan 02, 2015