Merge's Blog

The sorites paradox – a leadership dilemma

The sorites paradox: if individual grains of sand are removed one at a time from a hypothetical heap of sand, what is the point at which the heap can no longer be considered a heap?  At first glance, you may think that this is merely a philosophical question, but the metaphor has great applicability if you carry it into the workplace.  Consider this: if minor seemingly harmless problems or changes go unnoticed and do not individually attract attention, is there a possibility that eventually the sum total of these issues over time will result in a major setback?  And what if the significant outcome is one that, if it would have happened all at once, would have been regarded as negative, undesirable or objectionable?

In the workplace, the sorites paradox is often referred to by a variety of synonyms – creeping normality, the broken window theory, the boiling frog syndrome, and even death by a thousand cuts.  But no matter what you call the phenomenon, all versions lead to a single conclusion – as leaders, it’s important to keep your eye on what may seem to be even minor or gradual issues or changes, because left unchecked, they could eventually cumulate and lead to undesirable consequences.  Perhaps more importantly, how can you, as a leader, know when you need to step in and halt the removal of grains of sand so as to still preserve the heap?

The sorites paradox … at work

Here are some workplace instances of the sorites paradox that immediately come to mind:

  • Individual process bottlenecks are not addressed and begin to snowball as they continue down the line.
  • Inappropriate behaviours between co-workers are not dealt with in a timely fashion, and team members start behaving as if the offending behaviours are now the new normal.
  • Negativity from a single employee is allowed to continue and fester, and when ignored, becomes a contagion that spreads to other employees.
  • Trivial or insignificant rumours left unchecked start to build up and in due course turn into outrageous speculations.
  • Petty grievances by employees become serious grievances and the eventual outcome is staff who are disengaged and demoralized.

Perhaps the more important question is: when should you, the leader, step in and deal with the individual issues or changes before they accumulate into something larger and more ominous?

So these examples in the workplace are ones that immediately come to my mind.  But what have been your experiences?  Have you seen the sorites paradox in action where you work?  I’d love to hear about what you’ve observed and faced.  How are you dealing with death by a thousand cuts?  Please share by commenting below.

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