Truth or Fiction

Truth or FictionTake a look at an emerging phenomenon: what has happened to the lines between truth and fiction?  They have become blurred by ‘alternate facts’, by reliance on anonymous sources of information, by willfully ignoring evidence that refutes a point of view. Although ‘truth’ can be a relative term in the best of circumstances, it seems to have become open to interpretation more than ever in our lifetimes. As this takes place in the wider world, what impact begins to be felt in the workplace?

Marty remarked, “It seems to me our executive meetings are more about warring opinions these days than they are about bringing data to bear on issues.”

Kashena noted that in her office there was little attempt to validate or refute anecdotal observations before taking actions.

Lila worried that in her company, she was seeing people grouping around uncertain ideas that were put forth with little rigor.

While all of these situations can, and do, occur in business even without the influence of the outside world, the acceptance and cover provided by following outside norms adds to the riskiness of these behaviors in business decision-making.

What do strong leaders need to detect and influence in the environment to mitigate such risk, and to enhance reliable decision-making?

Lack of robust dissension

Dissension, if well-debated in a spirit of exploration, is a powerful way to assure that decisions are fully vetted before finalized. When there is little dissension, it may indicate fear of bringing forward factual evidence that challenges a majority view, or that of a powerful individual. Good leaders invite and encourage challenges, but assure they are grounded in solid information.

All debate, no solid decisions

On the opposite pole from the lack of dissension is dissension as a substitute for thoughtful decision-making. It is often characterized by attacking others’ opinions with anecdotal ‘facts’, and putting forward opinions with little solid backing. Because these poor arguments fail to advance a decision, the debate goes on until the exhausted parties reach a decision that is almost always suboptimal. A leader witnessing this kind of behavior needs to lay out the ground rules for debate on issues – opinions based on data, not anecdotes, respectfully offered. There may also need to be a set of limits on the ‘filibusters’ that are common in this unproductive debate.

Reliance on marginal sources of information

It’s easy to justify almost any point of view with data these days, but not all data is created equal. Multiple anecdotal observations, while useful in illustrating the impact of a data-informed discussion, do not constitute adequate data for decision-making. Data based on surveys may be helpful, but its usefulness is heavily influenced by the design of the questions and the interpretation of the results. Data from sources such as consulting firms may have a point of view to sell.

As a leader, you need to put different sources of data into their proper pecking order in influencing your group’s decisions, and to discredit, where necessary, highly questionable data.

Belief in unsubstantiated information

The rumor mill often produces believable information, especially where it picks up on a shred of facts as its foundation. And people sometimes get stuck in a belief based on such limited information, and will repeatedly bring it forward as input to decisions.

Your job is to do two things: clearly separate the shreds of truth from the innuendo surrounding them, so that people differentiate truth and fiction; and provide – or assure it is provided – any additional facts that can help people get unstuck from their misbegotten beliefs.

As you exercise your leadership skills to assure decisions are based on the best ‘truth’ available, acknowledge that while the world may be blurring the lines between truth and fiction, it is not the culture you expect from your organization, nor will it serve the organization well. Be clear in your expectations for distinguishing and using the best data and the best decision-making practices available as you make crucial judgements to guide your firm’s growth and well-being.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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