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The Philosopher at Work: An Interview with Brennan Jacoby

What lessons can Nietzsche offer to the world of business?

Philosophy At Work | Brenna. Jacoby

Dr. Brennan Jacoby is a philosopher and the founder of Philosophy at Work, an organisation providing professional support to companies navigating complex issues and bringing about positive change.  He delivers group facilitation, learning and development training and public speaking.   

In this interview, we discussed the role of the philosopher in the boardroom, how to make the right decisions, and why Silicon Valley has taken a sudden interest in the lessons of Plato.

—David Maclean


 

Where did you grow up, and what was your hometown like?

I grew up in Detroit, MI until I was 8-years old, and then the family moved to Jackson, MI in the countryside. I grew up in a family of musicians and artists, but there was always a lot of reading and thinking going on in the home, and I think that likely sparked some of my later interest in philosophy.

 

Were you interested in philosophy during high school, or did that come earlier? You mention that it was perhaps always there percolating in the background.

No, it actually came much later. Growing up in a family that was always interested in getting at the truth of things and thinking about what’s real definitely laid the groundwork for asking philosophical questions, but it was when I got to university that I really started to become interested in the ideas that would later evolve into Philosophy at Work. I actually began by studying communications and working in radio broadcasting at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, and because it’s a liberal arts university part of the programme mandates that you undertake an introduction to philosophy class. While I was on that course,  I came across thinkers like Plato, Nietzsche and Sartre that were talking about things that I thought really mattered and made a lot of sense, so I switched from communications to philosophy with the idea that if I learned how to think, I could then return to broadcasting and have more to say. I still haven’t made it back to radio, but that movement from thinking to doing is the core of what I’m doing now with Philosophy at Work; the belief that how we think impacts what we do, i.e. how we execute.

 

From your first encounters with those thinkers, particularly those you mention such as Plato and Nietzsche, how did your philosophical thinking change over time?

I was initially drawn to Plato because of how engaging his dialogues are and the way he portrays Socrates as a humble questioner who is not out to win political points but rather wants to develop understanding.  I also warmed to Plato’s allegory of the cave and the idea of the philosopher’s role in helping people challenge their assumptions. Then came Nietzsche, which I came to with a curiosity about his statement that ‘God is dead’. What interested me there was not just the logic of the argument but the idea of how these things relate to the bigger picture. With Nietzsche, here was someone who came from a long line of theists, vicars and pastors, so what was it that made someone with that heritage come out with this proclamation that God is dead? I think that really influenced my trajectory in looking at the human side of the philosopher, which then led me towards ethics more broadly and thinking about what shaped a philosopher’s ideas and how they worked. I then moved on to Kierkegaard, who I think I was drawn to because his philosophy was so intertwined with his personal life, and again another thinker growing up in a very Christian milieu and how he wrestled with that. I think this is probably because having grown up in the fairly conservative American Midwest, I was also wrestling with my own understanding of life and the complexity of everything at that point.

 

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"For any democracy to work well, you need to have citizens, or employees, that are well-informed, that can think well, that can hold people to account, generate their own ideas and sharpen each other. And yet, I don’t see companies training up their people to ask questions"

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That brings us on to your current venture. What inspired you to begin Philosophy at Work?

Philosophy at Work grew organically out of my PhD, which analysed the issue of trust and betrayal, at an interpersonal level but also within organisations. Following my PhD I started working with companies and individuals on the issue of trust, and this is when it was starting to become a hot topic in the post-2008 period. As I was doing that work, I realised that the value philosophy could bring wasn’t limited to particular content focusing on, for example, trust. I had clients coming back to me saying things like ‘’We like the way that you’re making us think about things, and the critical approach that we’re taking here.’’ So on the back of that experience, of seeing how philosophy can not only change the way we’re thinking about trust but also bringing in a methodology for considering these issues, I wanted to develop tools that would help companies benefit from philosophy more broadly. At the same time, one of the trends I was seeing in professional life was that organisations were increasingly trying to operate on what are, effectively, democratic principles: equality, flat organizational structures and the need for good ideas to come from everywhere within the company. For any democracy to work well, you need to have citizens, or employees, that are well-informed, that can think well, that can hold people to account, generate their own ideas and sharpen each other. And yet, I don’t see companies training up their people to ask questions, and it’s rare to find a company culture where that kind of constructive dialogue takes place. So I set up Philosophy at Work to help organisations navigate complex challenges by developing the quality of thinking and inquiry that goes on in their day-to-day work.

 

Did you find it a hard sell in the early days? How did your early clients respond to having a philosopher in as a consultant?

No, it was quite the opposite! In the early days, people seemed to quite like the idea of having a philosopher in the room. I suppose this was because they were curious to see what might happen.  But in those early days, philosophy was just seen as a ‘nice to have’ but not necessarily essential. I think now in more recent years that people are taking ideas more seriously and not just seeing philosophy as ‘icing on the cake’, but instead part of the essential operations such as decision-making, planning, assessment of outcomes, etc.

 

As you’ve touched upon, one of the areas you’re working on is trust. Specifically, in helping organisations and individuals to improve their standing in this area with the public. I was hoping you could discuss some of the philosophical issues at stake here and which thinkers have directly influenced your work on this topic.

I think that part of what is at stake on the issue of trust in business - but also more broadly - is trust itself. Today, a lot of time is spent trying to build trust, but what is really being built is reduced vulnerability. In short, a reduced risk of being let down. For example, a lot of attention is being given to transparency initiatives and systems that reduce the risk of human tampering, such as blockchain.  Apart from other things that make them valuable, these initiatives are being championed as being pro-trust. But it is possible for such things to reduce vulnerability without supporting trust. For example, transparency may give consumers confidence that a brand will not step out of line, and blockchain may give users reason to believe their data will not be tampered with, but in either case the customer or user can feel safe without necessarily trusting the brand in question or the bank using blockchain.  In the case of the brand, customers may just be relying on the scaffolding of oversight, and with block chain users may be relying on a complex system rather than trusting the stakeholder they are doing business with. I am not against transparency or blockchain, but instead of being ‘systems of trust’ as they are often called, I think they remove the need for trust. If we just want to feel safe, then increasing transparency and removing human fallibility are good steps to take, but I don’t think people just want to feel safe - we also want to be connected, and, I think, be trusted. So, because I think that much of the contemporary discourse on trust is focused on reducing vulnerability, and because I believe that the removal of vulnerability is not the answer where trust is concerned, part of what I think is at stake is trust itself.

 

The hallmark of a strong business leader, or at least our conception of one, requires that they make the right decisions. What can philosophy bring to the table here?

Philosophy brings an opportunity to know yourself, and where your own subjectivity might be coming into the decisions you make. For example, some advise that when making decisions one should imagine what the future would be like after the decision.  While I find that approach useful, the problem here is that when we do imagination is still drawing on subjectivity, which will colour our decision making. Instead, in keeping with Socrates’ advice to ‘know thyself’, philosophy can help us understand what is going on inside us when we make decisions; it can help us uncover the background subjectivity and processes that might colour decision making, and that can help us to make more objective decisions.

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"Philosophy brings an opportunity to know yourself, and where your own subjectivity might be coming into the decisions you make"

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Coming back to Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, he argues that regardless of which decision you make there will always be a level of dissatisfaction that comes with it. Do you think that’s a pragmatic approach for decision-makers to take?

Yes and no. On one hand, I find that approach very relieving when I’m having to make big decisions, because it’s a comforting thought to accept that no decision will be perfect. But I don’t think that approach is always helpful in business.  At work, we don’t just need to feel at ease about big decisions, we need to know how to actually move forward. With such strategic decisions, data is invaluable, and philosophy does not produce data. What philosophy does afford, though, is help in interpreting data for the sake of making a good decision. It helps clarify what one should be doing (i.e. Is a choice ethical?, Is it going to set the business up for long-term success?). Once you’re bringing values to bear on data, then you’re doing philosophy with regard to decisions.

 

 Valley has set the precedent for aggressively recruiting philosophers into their ranks, particularly as they work on new technologies like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, or their near approximations. There are obvious philosophical and moral questions attached to these developments, but what else do you think is behind this trend?

Where the moral questions arise around things like driverless cars, it makes perfect sense to bring in moral philosophers  the people who have made an art about thinking over these issues and courses of action. But I think there’s more to it. I can’t pretend to divine the full motivations behind Silicon Valley executives recruiting philosophers, but what I do see is that since the Industrial Revolution we have increasingly been moving towards ever more specialised work. And in conversations that I’m having across industries, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with specialisation as it makes it harder to see the bigger picture. I think philosophy helps alleviate this by zooming out to examine issues across specialisations and disciplines.

 

Philosophy, as Harry Frankfurt and others have articulated, is very good at seeing through 'bullshit' and exposing fallacious ideas and methodologies. Do you think this is perhaps one of the other main attractions for bringing philosophers into the boardroom?

Yes. Philosophy is not just asking questions for the sake of it  it’s asking whether what is being said is really true and whether a course of action is good. If we take philosophy right back to its etymological roots, it means ‘the love of wisdom’, and that’s what it’s about: getting to the heart of what’s really real. That pursuit of what is real might be very abstract, but it is often also very practical. At work it often translates to uncovering organizational purpose, making sense of a tricky challenge or talking about the ‘elephant in the room’ during a meeting. We need people who can press the pause button on the discussion and query the substance of what is being said. Philosophy can help with that. It’s that dogged curiosity and supportive scepticism that’s needed, and in these Silicon Valley companies that are trying to be cutting-edge and remake the world, they are recognising the need to have philosophers engaged with such things.

The issues of work-life balance and job satisfaction are moving higher up on the business agenda. Coming back to Kierkegaard, he’s one philosopher who was very critical of busyness - the need to always be working on something, which has been in the news again recently with the issue of 100-hour work weeks and 'crunch work' - which he argued was damaging because it was working towards indeterminate ends. Do you think that philosophers can assist in this regard by helping companies to articulate the why behind their work?

I think that philosophers can help business address this work-life balance issue in two ways. First, they can help businesses clarify the ‘why’, which is very useful for people who are working very hard and very diligently. I’m thinking of Nietzsche, who said that ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’. If you know what your purpose is, and why you’re doing something, then that can be of tremendous help. At the same time, I don’t want to say that the way forward is just to refine purpose so that people work harder and harder simply because they have a clear, articulated goal in mind. One’s purpose at work should serve to connect them with the value of their efforts, not induce them to work harder still.  

Secondly, outside of philosophy, there’s plenty of research showing that more hours do not equate to greater effectiveness at work. I think the role that philosophy can play here is to, in the light of such research, help business leaders make the time and space to reflect on how their people are working, and then construct systems and environments that support employee well-being and effectiveness.  So while philosophy could be used to help people work harder, I think there is greater value in the ability of philosophy to help people approach their work more wisely.

 

If you can offer one maxim from philosophy to the business, what would it be?

Believe in good questions, and appreciate the value they bring.

 

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