Bad Arguments at Work

— — —

“I like solving problems from first principles!”

— most people who rarely, if ever, solve a problem from first principles.

So many conversations and conflicts you will get into at work are insanely counterproductive. Most of the time, it’s because instead of reasoning from first principles, people are pulling in a bunch of irrelevant outside details and emotions to support their argument. It’s true that first principles has effectively become a buzzword, but it’s also true that thinking clearly will make you a much better person to work with. You will also get better work done when you think clearly.

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of the worst kinds of arguments we’ve seen at work. You’ll recognize a lot of these from your own experiences. Use the list to identify flaws in your own thinking and to point out errors in other people’s thinking.

    • Pattern matching when it’s not useful.
      • Ex: “We did it this way at the other company I worked at!”, except their other employer has 100,000 employees and their current one is a seed-stage startup with 5.

    • Not responding to the specific statement someone made, instead responding to some other and easier-to-refute version of it.
      • Ex: Someone comes up with a creative marketing idea. You respond by saying: “All of this out-of-the-box marketing stuff never works. We want to double down on paid ads.” In this case, you have pretended to refute their statement but have not even addressed it. 
    • False causation.
      • Ex: “Growth has slowed ever since we hired Jessica.”

    • Citing years of experience.
      • Ex: “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I can tell you that would never work.”

    • Citing credentials.
      • Ex: “I studied comp sci at Carnegie Mellon. I know what I’m talking about here.”

    • Citing irrelevant details.
      • Ex: “This was a bad essay because some of the grammar was incorrect.”

    • Using absolute statements.
      • Ex. “If we want a chance at getting to profitability, we need to reduce headcount.”

    • Assuming the goal before clarifying it.
      • Ex. “You should rewrite your website headline to improve conversion” — a line from a cold emailer who doesn’t even know whether you care about homepage conversion.

    • Using false dichotomies.
      • Ex. “If we want to achieve Z, we must either do X or Y” (When in reality both are possible).

    • Attacking the weakest point of an argument (as opposed to the strongest).
      • Ex. “I don’t like the TikTok video ideas, so let’s discard this growth strategy.”

    • Justifying via hype.
      • Ex. “X company got so much attention on Twitter because they did Y, which means that we should do Y.”

    • Placing blind faith in authority or perceived credibility.
      • Ex. “Our lead investor said he likes my idea better, which means we should do it.”

If you have more to add to this list, email us and let us know (we’d love to continue adding).

If you want to avoid doing these things or prevent others from doing them, the best way we know to do that is to write your thinking about any given topic down, then sleep on it. The next day, take some time to stare at it with fresh eyes and interrogate it.

You could even reference the list above and ask yourself if you are making any of the listed mistakes. Of course this isn’t possible in every single case, but in the situations where you have a day or two to think about something, you should do so.

* * *

Have any feedback? Contact us.