These sentences of managers that are absolutely useless

In the 1991 film Delicatessen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, the character played by Ticky Holgado tries to sell the character played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus a rat caller

These sentences of managers that are absolutely useless

In the 1991 film Delicatessen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, the character played by Ticky Holgado tries to sell the character played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus a rat caller. Wiping a refusal, he then takes out of his suitcase an improbable rectangular object decked out with a kind of antenna-microphone, declaring that it is a bullshit detector. He enjoins his interlocutor to say one. He hesitates, then finally blurts out, "Life is beautiful!" » At these words, the antenna-microphone of the detector begins to turn on itself while making a repeated noise of a bathtub duck.

How many managers have wished they had a detector like the one imagined by Jeunet and Caro? Who hasn't wasted hours in a meeting listening to a speaker spouting platitudes, truisms or sometimes even nonsense in a learned tone? Examples include: "Poorly managed organizations can survive for a while, but will eventually fail", "Engaged employees work hard" or "Companies that survive are those that adapt to their market".

Although presented as valuable snippets of managerial wisdom, all of these phrases actually waste the time of those for whom they are intended, as they are merely tautologies (necessarily true propositions). Knowing exactly why, however, requires a little thought. While the device used in Delicatessen is not yet commercially available, its linguistic-philosophical equivalent has been around for a long time, 1730 exactly. It is known as "Hume's Fork". Used well, the tool proves to be extremely effective, whether it concerns communicating scientific results in a transparent manner or being appreciated by its collaborators.

Drawing on the work of medieval philosophers, David Hume (1711-1776) proposes to make a distinction between "relations between ideas" and "factual relations", i.e. between what is now called the analytical and synthetic propositions. In its simplest formulation, Hume's Fork states that meaningful utterances are of these two and only of these two kinds; those which are neither analytical nor synthetic are senseless or absurd. Note here that qualifying a proposition as senseless or absurd in the sense of the Fork of Hume does not mean that it is necessarily devoid of moral value: "I love you" or "God exists" are senseless propositions according to the Fork of Hume, but they are, in various ways, important to those who speak them or those who hear them.

These statements are all tautological, that is, they are redundant, repetitive. They provide no new information about the material world, only information about the meaning of words. "Charismatic leaders are influential" or "random decisions lack clear direction" are examples of such statements one hears in business.

The verification of analytical statements is based on logical considerations and not on experience. Their denial inevitably involves a contradiction. In this sense, arithmetic is an immense tautology. For example, once one knows what the terms mean, one cannot deny that "the square root of sixteen is four" without committing an error in reasoning. The validity of the proposition does not depend on the existence or non-existence of what is counted.

What has just been said does not apply to synthetic statements which are themselves the result of experience. These are propositions whose negation does not lead to a contradiction, whose content is known after experience (a posteriori), which are not true by definition and therefore which are either true or false (and when we think them true, they might as well be wrong). "The sun will rise tomorrow" is a synthetic statement that could be wrong (and will be one day, since the sun will eventually go out).

The veracity of synthetic propositions rests solely and necessarily on empirical verification. We can get an idea of ​​it, but it is impossible to be certain that a liter of liquid water will have this same volume in the solid state before doing an experiment which will show that this is not the case. The veracity of synthetic statements cannot be decided by analyzing the meaning of the terms that compose them or by checking whether the sentences respect the rules of grammar.

In business, it is not always easy to classify the proposals that are submitted to us. When a consultant, for example, announces that "only companies adapted to their environment survive", he is only making an analytical statement without practical interest: the proposition is always true, or more exactly it cannot be shown to be false. .

Ditto for the statement "poorly run businesses can continue to be successful" because the modal "may" implies the possibility that what is on offer may not materialize: the formal truth of this statement can be established even if it did not exist no mismanaged businesses. This would not be the case if the statement were negative. "Businesses cannot survive without HR leadership" is not analytical, as one example of a business surviving without HR leadership would be enough to establish it as false.

Much of the everyday language is analytic or nonsensical according to Hume's Fork ("I like this painting, because I find it beautiful", "I am anxious", etc.). If in their everyday life managers and senior executives can accept this kind of proposals (of which they are sometimes the authors), it is not the same in their professional role. At work, synthetic propositions should be preferred, because they alone provide information on the basis of which a decision will or will not be made. Conversely, in a professional setting, anyone who pronounces an analytical or absurd statement wastes his time and makes his interlocutor(s) lose it.

Expressed otherwise, any analytical or nonsensical statement may be removed from a document, presentation, press release or statement, without diminishing the factual content thereof. Statements such as "goods sell well", "businesses are made up of men and women", or "things will get worse before they get better" do nothing.

Hume's Fork is not just an intellectual exercise. Indeed, an ongoing study suggests that companies that communicate in summary terms in their annual report are also those that are most successful financially. In addition, managers who master the Hume Fork are also those who are most appreciated by their employees. Indeed, they do not bother with frills in their communications and go straight to the point by focusing on expressing only factual truths.

*Jean-Étienne Joullié, Professor of Management at EMLV, Pôle Léonard-de-Vinci, and Philippe Spach, Associate Professor of Management