Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 6;   February 11, 2004: Decision-Making and the Straw Man

Decision-Making and the Straw Man

by

In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.

Natalie interrupted Geoff. "I don't think that's a realistic approach at all. Even if we had the budget, we don't have time to hire thirty people."

Geoff was now on defense. "I never suggested that — I said that to make the scheduled date would require thirty more people. Hiring is probably the worst way to get there."

Playing defense, Geoff's task is not only to make his original point, but also to remove the distortions that Natalie has introduced into the debate by using a technique called the Straw Man fallacy.

Two straw men

Straw men. These huge straw men were set up in 2010 to welcome the Tour de France cycling race which went through Lautrec. Image (cc by ND 2.0) by Robin Ellis.

To use Straw Man, you state your partner's position in a form that's easy to refute. Then you refute your restatement of it, often by showing that it has unacceptable implications.

Most of us use Straw Man from time to time. It's so common that we rarely notice it. Here are some indicators that your partner may have used Straw Man.

A sense of frustration
Feelings of frustration during debate can arise from many possible sources, but check for Straw Man first.
Someone characterizes your position
Your partner characterizes your position, and you have little or no opportunity to critique the characterization before the process of drawing extremely undesirable inferences has begun.
Absolute language
The Straw Man fallacy
is so common that
we rarely notice it
In the characterization of your position, nuances and qualifications are removed, and an absolutist version of your position emerges. Words like every, nobody, all, none, always, never, forever, 100%, completely, and so on are good indicators.
I never said…
If you feel the need to clarify, or to deny that you said something, there's a good chance that your partner has used Straw Man.

If the user of Straw Man prevails, success might be based not on the strength of the argument, but on a distorted premise. And anything constructed on that basis is more likely to be wrong. To manage this risk, be prepared to deal with the Straw Man fallacy when it appears.

Educate
Make sure that everyone understands the Straw Man fallacy, how it works, and what it costs.
Notice characterizations
When you notice that someone's position is being characterized, speak up. Before the implications begin to flow, ask for discussion of the characterization, and gain agreement that it's fair and complete.

When we use Straw Man in the decision-making context, we typically intend to eliminate something from the list of candidates so that the group will choose one of the other options. This is a setup for tragedy. If the ploy works, we will have chosen that option not by comparing it to the options we do have, but to distortions of them. And we will have built our decision on a foundation of straw. Go to top Top  Next issue: Resuming Projects: Team Morale  Next Issue

For more on the Straw Man fallacy, see D. Walton, "The Straw Man Fallacy," in Logic and Argumentation J. van Bentham, et. al., ed. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1996. Available at io.uwinnipeg.ca/~walton/96straw.pdf.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenPMIeRfYTEAdUhnCqner@ChacJHOQXDpjJamooLAMoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

HatsYou Remind Me of Helen Hunt
At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.
A sleeping dogAre You Micromanaging Yourself?
Feeling distrusted and undervalued, we often attribute the problem to the behavior of others — to the micromanager who might be mistreating us. We tend not to examine our own contributions to the difficulty. Are you micromanaging yourself?
Aerial view of the Charley River at its confluence with the YukonHow to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
A pipe tomahawk dating to 1740-1780How to Avoid a Layoff: Your Relationships
In troubled economic times, layoffs loom almost everywhere. Here are some tips for reconfiguring your relationships with others at work and at home to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, AlabamaFirst Aid for Wounded Conversations
Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenzjnyqscMiavVjEPSner@ChacmeSFuCLOKbaGfVZCoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.