We're committing the logical error called the nominal fallacy when we believe that because we've given something a name, we've explained it. An example: "He doesn't get along with his teammates because he's difficult." Labeling him "difficult" doesn't explain the troubled relationships in the team. It leaves many questions unanswered. Why is he difficult? How is difficult defined? Is he the only team member who's difficult? Are all people who don't get along with their teammates difficult? Can there be other reasons for troubled relationships in this team?
We can extend the nominal fallacy concept slightly to an Attributes Fallacy, which is the logical error of believing that we've explained an entity — or elaborated an existing explanation — when we merely list some of the entity's attributes. If an entity's name is one of its attributes, then the Nominal Fallacy is a special case of the Attributes Fallacy.
For example, when we categorize defects in a software product as change-request, performance-severe, unclassified, and so on, we aren't resolving the defects. We're classifying them. Each defect had a name, and now we've given it a classification. Name and classification are two of its attributes.
Naming and classifying can be satisfying. They might even be steps necessary for achieving our goals. But in most cases in the workplace, naming or classifying isn't the goal. When we enjoy naming and classifying so much that our enjoyment interferes with actual goal achievement, we're in trouble.
This trouble can appear anywhere. When we design project plans, we name tasks. I've done it myself. It's fun. But naming tasks doesn't bring the project home. It's a necessary step toward the goal, but it's just a step.
Consider When we enjoy naming and
classifying so much that
our enjoyment interferes
with actual goal achievement,
we're in troublethe annual budget for your organization. Somebody decides how much to spend on each major organizational element. When they do, they're assigning a value to each organizational element's "budget" attribute. But that isn't the end of the budget process. Budgets must be monitored. When they prove to be too low, or too high, interventions are required. That's hard work. Setting the budget is just the beginning. The same can be said for schedules and strategies.
What's so seductive about naming things, or setting the values of their attributes, or even merely understanding the naming work someone else has done, is that when we do it, we do experience a disproportionate sense of getting something done, however illusory that sense might be. My hope is that your having read this little essay will help you recognize that sense of satisfaction as the joy that comes — in part — from the Nominal Fallacy.
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More articles on Rhetorical Fallacies:
- The Slippery Slope That Isn't
- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope"
tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks
that push our buttons.
- When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our
debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical,
and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- The Reification Error and Performance Management
- Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting
to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example
of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted
- Apophenia at Work
- The urge to identify as meaningful the patterns we see in winning streaks in sports, or streaks of successes
in business, can lead us to accept bogus explanations prematurely. It's a common human tendency that
can put people and organizations in desperate situations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.