Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s extensive psychological treatise on antifragility (things that gain from disorder) offers humans, not least Human Resource personnel, the opportunity to look at life from a different perspective-one of embracing and thriving in uncertainty and randomness.
We are so used to coming into the office at a set time, on set days, doing set tasks to attain measurable objectives that eventually we can start to become irritated when things go wrong – the email system going down, a fire drill we had forgotten about, and spilling coffee on our paperwork, etc.
According to Taleb, we need to learn – or relearn – how to adapt creatively to random events. He calls this quality ‘antifragility’.
What is ‘antifragility’ or antifragile HR?
Taleb created the word ‘antifragile’ after realizing that there was no word for the opposite of fragile. Fragile things get weaker when exposed to shock, resistant things stay the same when shocked (compare say glass with toughened glass) but there are few physical things that actually get stronger when shocked. Those things that do would be ‘antifragile’, and Taleb claims the entire evolution of biological and social systems – from bacteria and human beings to financial and technological systems – all thrived because of their antifragility.
If you have worked in HR for any length of time you will know all about resistance masquerading as antifragility. It’s those employees or colleagues who cope with everything that has been thrown at them, day after day, year after year until, finally, they snap.
‘Black Swans’ and the illusion of predictability
All experienced HR professionals will also know what ‘black swans’ are, even if we’ve never named them such. They are those massive stressors – those mergers and acquisitions; office closures and company reorganizations – that seem to come out of the blue and throw the whole corporate animal into chaos and confusion. Taleb claims that modern humans have got it wrong by believing these events to be predictable just because we can explain how they happened in retrospect.
The truly antifragile among us thrive under such stressors, taking the opportunity to change the way the company as a whole operates. In the same way as the strong (antifragile) survive environmental challenges to pass on their genes to future members of the species, antifragile organisations (employing enough antifragile directors and employees) ride the wave of economic and strategic uncertainty to outgrow the competition. But why do such changes often lead to losses instead?
Risk-taking and top-down control
Taleb sees modern civilisation as having led to the creation of a type of ‘anti-hero’ that takes all of the benefits of speculation without shouldering any of the risk. This was illustrated most clearly in the recent economic crisis, where a lack of accountability in the area of financial speculation was partly to blame for that massive financial black swan that is still being felt across the world.
Taleb blames a heavy-handed top-down approach that seeks to impose pseudo-order over systems that are inherently subject to chaos, rather than allowing each of us to adapt to random events in our own unique ways. Ironically, according to Taleb, we have now used technology to create such complex systems of control that the systems themselves are creating larger and more unpredictable black swans.
Living the wind
Taleb suggests that we all need to learn to love the wind that is uncertainty and randomness.
By becoming aware of random events and treating them as an agent of positive change, rather than a hindrance to our pursuit of the status quo, we can spot opportunities for real improvement and growth.