Productivity Killers: Ontological Arrogance

Apr 24, 2023

Michelle doesn’t eat broccoli. She says that “it’s ugly.” Marcelo refuses to discuss an issue with Gustavo. He says that he “he’s an idiot”. The difference between Michelle, my five-year-old daughter, and Marcelo, my 45-year-old client, doesn’t seem that big. But in the case of Marcelo, marketing manager for Latin America of a well-known multinational, the consequences are much more serious. Gustavo is the executive in charge of the most important product line in the region of that same company. If Marcelo acts unilaterally, he will make a mess. He will not only create operational problems; he will also jeopardize relations between his show and Gustavo’s division.

Both Michelle and Marcelo suffer from the same malady: ontological arrogance; that is, the belief that our experience defines reality. “What seems to me,” thinks the arrogant ontologist, “is so.” Consequently, “if someone does not seem the same as me, they are wrong.” Marcelo calls Gustavo an “idiot” because she doesn’t think the same as him. Like all those infected by the “virus” of ontological arrogance, Marcelo considers himself the owner of reality. He believes that his opinions are “the” truth, rather than “his” truth about him.

Jean Piaget, the famous psychologist of cognitive development, was conducting a fascinating experiment with children. He would give a boy a cube painted half red and half green to familiarize himself with. Then she would sit in front of him and, holding the cube in his hands, would ask him: “What color do you see?” “Green”, the boy answered correctly. The next question was: “What color do you think I see?” The four or five year olds answered without hesitation: “Green”. But Piaget found that, between the ages of six and eight, they developed the cognitive ability to take a different perspective.


From what I have seen, more than people who are 45 years old, many executives have 40 years of experience in being five years old. “The client is an abuser”, “The computer science people are unbearable”, are some of the phrases that reflect the ontological arrogance in organizations. These phrases and, especially, the ideology they contain, prevent productive dialogue. Arrogance generates conflicts and lack of communication that hurt the effectiveness of the task and work relationships.

Since it is impossible to trade without opinions, what is the alternative? How to give an opinion without becoming arrogant? The key is to adopt a posture of humility; accept that my perspective of things is not the only one possible. That my opinions reflect my reaction to the facts and not the facts themselves. This reaction is conditioned by my information, my interests and needs. If other people have different information, needs or interests, even when faced with the same facts, their opinions will be different.

The language of ontological humility is based on the appropriation of my opinions and the consideration of the opinions of others. In order to establish a dialogue of mutual acceptance and respect, I must not only learn to express my opinion, but also the reasoning behind it and its consequences. Likewise, it is necessary to learn to investigate the reasoning behind the other’s opinion and the recommendations derived from it. These are fundamental competencies that most professionals never acquire.

… it is necessary to learn to investigate the reasoning behind the other’s opinion…

The maturity of the human being is reflected in his ability to integrate different perspectives. To do this, we must overcome the attachment to our own perspective and accept the perspectives of others. Dialogue is richer and more productive when all opinions are considered; that is, when none is presented as the only truth.

The problem is that the more permission people have to speak frankly, the more diversity of opinion arises, and the more conflicts appear. It is essential, therefore, to learn to deal with these conflicts, productively and respectfully. Exactly, the subject of the next article.

Also on axialent