How to Evaluate Theories

What You Need to Know Before Investing Time and Money

How can a prospective leader regard all the hype about the latest "theory". To understand how to evaluate theories, first, we must be aware what theory really means. A theory, in the scientific sense, is an explanation of confirmed observations. These come from repeated recording of trained observers, and replications in laboratories. A core of scientific methods is hypothesis testing. A person has an idea, based on previous knowledge, and she or he will predict an outcome. Testing will occur according to a well defined protocols. The observation will confirm or reject the hypothesis. If enough replications occur by independent researchers, a theory emerges. The same is true with respect to theories in general, and, in this case, "motivation theories". We must ask whether this "theory" emerges from extensive and independent testing.

The usual questions about how to evaluate theories need to be asked!
  1. What about the researchers
  2. What is the date of the research
  3. What is the research method
  4. What is their reputation
  5. What are the peer reviews saying
  6. Ect...

Leadership is about psychology, and we must insist that the rigor in that discipline be comparable to other scientific disciplines. Accordingly, the promoter of any theory or leadership training should adhere to the same standards.

We should be aware that many writers are egotistical and think they have something unique to contribute to the body of knowledge. They may, but the old adage is that there is nothing new under the sun. This is a bit extreme, of course, but it is premature to grab from someone proclaiming a new theory or model without thinking about how different it really is in terms of its basis in contributing something new. Even in using classifications of mental disorders, there is "differential diagnosis", where the examiner tries to understand the degree of a psychological state and factors that may signify another disorder.

For example, in our discussion on Reflection on motivational theories we asked whether there may be a number of "disorders" that may be contributing to a motivation. The occupational classifications and areas of society (social, economic, political, etc.) often overlap, but does that mean a new "theory" needs to be articulated to describe these overlaps? If we did would it pass the "How to evaluate theories" test? We can go on refining theories, but the exercise becomes one of numbers but not necessarily quality. In psychology or other fields where measurement and precision are difficult, if not impossible, we have to realize that the subjectivity is perspectival, dependent upon the background and prejudices of the observer. One can think of just as many theories of leadership, motivation, communication, and management, as there are persons to articulate them. However, all of this does not say that we should not have some form of classification, at least for heuristic purposes. We just need to be critical of the way it is formulated.

Another consideration in how to evaluate theories or leadership training, thus any promoter's claim is how useful then is this method of categorization? It may be fine for delineating fields of study and pointing to what drives a person, but what does this tell us about the very nature of leadership? All we know from this discussion is a categorization of phenomena that prompt a person. It doesn't tell us much about the core of the nature of leadership, itself. We discussed the "degree" of leadership and the fact that "motivation" is inextricably linked to, if not based on psychological condition, in the Leadership Types: A Reflection Based on Degree and Manifestation. We have addressed the validation problems in personality assessment. Does the promoter of her or his new "theory" consider all these qualifications? Is the presentation one that is designed to add just another heuristic device or is it "THE" theory to explain everything? Precisely what is the purpose of the "theory"?

It is not inconceivable that a theory of theories may emerge. What might be set forth as an algorithm for generating them? How are classification schema realized and what are are the factors controlling them? We need to identify what is being classified, of course. Then, we ask what has given rise to the phenomena. What are the factors that differentiate one element from another? Finally, what are the factors that can change anything in the schema? Can one element be cross-classified? How does environmental change affect the elements? Don't the elements change themselves? If a classification scheme, such as "motivational theories" does not address at least these issues, we need to be hypercritical.

Before literally buying into any "guru" and her or his pronouncements, just use some basic critical thinking skills, bearing in mind the above discussions.

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