The Orwell School of Management

Image of books by George Orwell

Insight into running a business is often found in unexpected places. After graduating high school, few corporate executives pay much attention to the late novelist and journalist George Orwell, who is best known for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. After all, Orwell’s territory was politics, not management.

But consider the following quote from “In Front of Your Nose,” an article Orwell wrote for Tribune in 1946. “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield…. To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

With this one quote alone, Orwell zeroed in on a challenge faced by every executive everyday: focusing on problems and fixing them. What makes this difficult is our brains, which can trick us into believing that problems do not exist, thereby justifying doing nothing.

The human capacity to rationalize not dealing with problems is virtually infinite. This is especially true for busy managers. Consider the following workplace example. You know a subordinate who can never do the job that they are paid to do. But instead of taking action, you delude yourself into not taking the painful termination step on the grounds that the employee in question may come around.

In this case, your false belief as a manager could hit the solid reality of a costly crisis caused by the subordinate’s incompetence. And thanks to your rationalizations, you end up looking like someone who can’t do the job you are paid to do and risk becoming a corporate casualty of your own making.

Think about all the M&A activity that takes place across the global economy. The reality is that many acquisitions are unlikely to be successful from a stakeholder perspective. But most acquisitions still reward the people who lead them, often turning CEOs into the highest-profile executives in their chosen industries, leading the sector’s biggest firms. That can overwhelm your judgment.

Other areas where executives are prone to conveniently talking themselves into believing things that just don’t add up range from supplier relationships and asset management to competitiveness and productivity. Ethics is also on the list, which is long and troubling.

Rationalizing bad decisions can be highly costly. We all know it, but it is in our nature. We all do it for a variety of reasons. Basic human weaknesses like ego, arrogance, pride, lack of courage to act, the inability to admit error, intellectual laziness, and procrastination can all get in the way of facing reality.

Unlike many critics, Orwell offers prescription as well as diagnosis and analysis. To help to see what is in front of one’s nose, he advises: “Keep a diary, or, at any rate, keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it…. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic.”

Keeping a diary of past beliefs, justifications, decisions, outcomes, and rationalizations and periodically re-reading this diary is outstanding executive advice. (Another literary suggestion to help executives see clearly: re-read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And when you go back to work, exile all flatterers from your kingdom. They offer no value. You need to surround yourself with people willing to tell you the unvarnished truth. Everybody knows why this is important, but not everybody does it. Blame rationalizations, again.)

Simply put, if you want to be a better executive, then pick up Orwell. You can always find a reason not to follow this advice. But anyone who finds the time will benefit from an excursion into his mind because the man could think. All of us are far more persuaded by words and how they are strung together than we realize, which is why confused writing and confused thinking make a lethal corporate cocktail. And so we can learn from Orwell, who offers a superb example of the kind of clear, simple, straightforward thinking so crucial to good decision-making.

In this regard, I recommend executives look at Orwell’s 1946 Horizon piece “Politics and the English Language.” Especially note his references to dying metaphors, meaningless words, pretentious diction, and verbal false limbs, as well as his six rules for the use of language, including “never use a long word when a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; and never use the passive where you can use the active.”

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact