Is it possible to be completely objective?
It is not uncommon to hear debates and discussions around what is ‘objective’ and what is ‘subjective’ at the workplace. Many meeting room discussions have this proverbial elephant that no one is willing to call out — the other persons view is subjective while mine is objective. Usually, the debates (ranging from the sublime subjects of strategy to the mundane subjects of processes) are mystifying and frustrating in equal measures; and not surprisingly, despite all attempts of “a team being collectively able to achieve objective decisions even when individuals involved have their own subjective baggage’s’’, many decisions, if not all, reek of an abject lack of objectivity.
I decided to dig deeper into the world of ‘objectivity’ – what it really means, how this abstract world lands in reality, how has this question been understood so far, what are its nuances, and finally, if it is even possible to be completely objective. Here is a short primer basis that research.
The ability to be objective is a holy grail — all humans aspire for it; higher ups in all kinds of hierarchies have a strong belief that they are objective, which is highly disputed by the lower downs, and finally no one really knows how pure objectivity really looks like.
Human beings have always believed that there are some things that make them different from all other animal species particularly on the basis of their innate abilities to understand and practice rationality, consciousness, free will, morality et al. However, recent studies have found these to be not really exclusive to human beings; many other species are shown to be equally capable in demonstrating them in their own contexts. However, no experiment or observation so far has claimed that anyone else but we are capable of being objective. We seem to have the sole copyright over it — even though most may not really know the concept deeply apart from a loose and colloquial understanding of the word.
Objectivity requires us to stand back from our perceptions, beliefs, and opinions, and to reflect on them, subject them to a particular kind of scrutiny, and above all, requires a degree of indifference in judging that may conflict with our own needs and desires. It appears that there are three aspects/types of objectivity — call it three layers that form the world of objectivity.
The first and the most common one is — ‘an objective judgment/opinion is a one that is free of prejudice and biases’; and the second one — ‘a judgment which is free of all assumption and values’. On the face of it, this looks like an extension of the first but is more nuanced. Who is to say what is a value/assumption and what is a prejudice?
Objectivity requires us to stand back from our perceptions, beliefs, and opinions and to reflect on them, subject them to a particular kind of scrutiny, and above all, requires a degree of indifference in judging that may conflict with our own needs and desires
Let’s illustrate this with an example. If one were to reject someone overtly in an interview, who belongs to a particular color or background or gender only because of these characteristics, it’s a clear and rabid case of prejudice. However, if one were to choose for a role say someone with only a particular type of educational background or gender in the name of ‘fitment’, it is very difficult to be sure if that is fair assessment of capability or just an ‘assumption’ that is coloring the decision. The gradation is subtle, gradual, and difficult to discern. A lot of prejudice passes off as ‘logical’ assumption.
The third notion of objectivity is focused directly on how we arrive at our views or theories. Whereas the first two describe a particular state of mind – to which we must aspire if we want to be objective, this third notion dictates that procedures of particular kind must be in place and must be followed if we want to be objective. Let us again understand that with an example — choosing a candidate on the basis of a pre-decided competency framework and that framework alone, where the person administering the framework does not allow his own preferences overpower the framework (howsoever difficult it might be to do so.)
The fourth understanding of objectivity is to move away from the negative definitions (as above – removal of prejudice, bias, and assumptions) to a more positive one – i.e. something’s that leads us to a more accurate representation of reality/truth. The former may or may not lead us to truth – the latter will take us to truth.
This part of understanding objectivity is very critical. What is the purpose of being objective really? Philosophers argue that the real and the only purpose of being objective is to ‘ascertain the truth – the absolute truth’.
A lot of leadership literature and development programs today focus on understanding of the self, with the hope that the participant is able to uncover the instances and sources of his/her own biases and prejudices and in the process of becoming aware of them, the hope is that they shall cure themselves of the burdens of taking a biased decisions. The scholars of objectivity are pointing out the imperfection in this hypothesis — removal of biases (assuming such developmental programs are indeed able to do that) is a good first-step, a necessary condition; but it is not sufficient condition to become objective. The final step to becoming objective and be able to take objective decisions is an ‘active search for truth’. But, how do we get there?
At the corporate workplace, we face an important problem in our own cultures’ aspirations to be objective. The so-called ‘modern and scientific’ understanding of issues has often confused the pursuit of objectivity with its cousins. Everyone believes themselves to be objective or his opinions to be objective and rational; a social and corporate prestige is attached to be ‘known and perceived’ to be objective. It has become the ‘be all’ and ‘end all’ of all discourse.
The preeminence of objectivity as a goal has resulted in other values masquerading as it, despite their having no relations to it, and in fact serving to usurp genuine objective judgments. A case in point in the modern workplace what is often referred to as ‘’number crunching”— the reduction of decision-making to quantification and measurement. An example of this is a fallacy is the email signature I often find – ‘what cannot be measured cannot be improved’.
It is clear that there are significant dangers in allowing quantification to replace judgment, allowing it to usurp the title of objectivity from a properly considered disinterested opinion given by someone with the relevant experience and skills. This does not mean that quantification has no part to play in decision-making but the danger is when we believe quantification will replace judgment.
At the end of a bit of research and reading on this subject, I am no closer to being really and truly objective. However, I understand the subject more clearly and deeply. Second, I shall be very hesitant to claim ‘objectivity’ in my opinions and decisions. I guess that is a good first step.