We are all familiar with the term fake news by now. We know it started catching momentum during the 2016 presidential election season and became officially mainstream on January 11, 2017, when then-President-Elect Donald Trump denied CNN Reporter Jim Costa a question and said to him, “You’re fake news.”
While the term may be new, its underlying definition is not. Fake news is just the timeless attempt to defeat one’s opponents by discrediting them through lies. This is done by carefully distributing false information, unfounded rumors and unconfirmed gossip in order to damage the opponent’s reputation and credibility. This strategy has been utilized throughout all of human history by plenty of individuals in power or seeking power, be it in politics, war or business.
However, due to modern technology (i.e. the internet, social media, computers and smartphones) fake news has become part of our everyday lives. And with the expertise of social, cognitive and behavioral psychologists, fake news is made to look, sound and feel as believable as possible within the constraints of its own falsehood. As a result, tens of millions of Americans have proven to be unable to distinguish fake news from actual facts. Not only is this the case in politics, but also in health, finance, religion and business.
Needless to say, this is a legitimate emergency. We can’t allow the course of our democracy, society and economy to be steered by lies. So, how are business leaders to lead in an environment where fake news has been allowed to thrive?
Here are three key business leadership lessons from the fake news debate:
1. Leaders must foster a culture of accuracy, accountability and sensibleness.
In our weakest and most compromised states (i.e. depression, anxiety, anger, shame, etc.), any of us can be seduced by the dark impulse to spread or believe in rumors (fake news) as a means to vent our emotions, achieve some sort of ill-conceived vindication or divert people’s attention away from something. In the workplace, such practices always pollute the work climate, damage relationships and hamper performance.
This makes it imperative for business leaders to foster a culture based on accuracy, accountability and sensibleness. In such a culture, we become appreciative of truthfulness, transparency, hard work, teamwork and the kind of relationships that result therefrom. Furthermore, we develop the wisdom necessary to fight the temptation of lying to ourselves and others whenever we are faced with challenging circumstances and objectives.
In such a culture, workers are also more likely to develop key management competencies such as fact checking, evidence gathering, logical argumentation and good judgment, all of which correlate positively with high performance, brand value and customer loyalty.
2. Leaders must ensure their teams develop critical thinking as a core competency.
Once human beings believe something, bending us in another direction is extremely hard. We can blame this on our cognitive simplicity, which makes it easier for us to believe things than to be skeptical about them. Or we can blame it on our discomfort with cognitive dissonance, which makes it painful for us to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Or even blame it on our intense habit of doubling down, which is to say when our beliefs are questioned, we go out of our way to reaffirm them, even without evidence. Also, our sense of tribal unity may make us hold tight to an old belief, even when it does not really feel right anymore, only to avoid the rejection of our friends and loved ones.
The point is that, in order for us to increase our understanding of any subject, solve complex problems and achieve challenging objectives, we must be able to transcend all of the aforementioned tendencies. We must learn to question ourselves, our beliefs, our habits and our reality. This means we must develop the ability to double check information, search for evidence, put aside our personal biases and put all of our findings to the test of basic logic and good judgement.
To that end, business leaders must make sure their teams develop important critical thinking skills such as:
• Understanding the links between ideas based on facts and logic.
• Identifying inconsistencies and errors in reasoning.
• Approaching problems in a consistent and systematic way.
• Reflecting on the justification of one’s own assumptions, beliefs and values.
• Designing, articulating and appraising arguments based on all of the above.
This is the only way for businesses to remain focused and effective in a world bombarded by falsehoods and so-called alternative facts.
3. Leaders must pay particularly close attention to young people.
A 2016 Stanford study showed that young people (especially high school and college students) have the most trouble discerning when news content has been sponsored by a special-interest group or afflicted by political bias. Furthermore, considering the specific tests administered in the study, we can conclude that these youngsters have trouble spotting obvious manipulations of key facts in science, history and politics.
Interestingly, these individuals happen to be the younger cohort of a generation whose older members have entered the workforce in the last five to seven years. So, it fits to ask, do the results of the aforementioned study also apply to the already-working subgroup of the same generation? Judging from my experience as a leadership coach, mentor and consultant for businesses across the Americas, I have to say that, in my universe of clients, it does.
I have found that professionals under 30 years old, while being very engaged, creative, outspoken and trend aware, are also more likely to miss a loud error in an excel sheet, an important liability in a legal document or an inconsistency in a complex argument. While these can be partially explained as part of the learning process, I have found that younger workers show a preference for shallowness over depth, simplism over hard work and trend following over verification.
The internet, search engines, computers and smartphones have reshaped society. In theory, there is plenty of more information available and we have new and better tools to work more efficiently and effectively. However, those very same tools have created a culture of immediacy and impatience that directly hinders the development of work discipline, attention to detail and critical thinking skills necessary to solve complex problems and achieve challenging goals.
When hiring young people, business leaders are not just hiring less experienced employees, they are also hiring workers with a fundamentally different worldview, with strengths and weaknesses that must be properly mapped and understood. With this in mind, if Generations X and Y work together in helping each other leverage our strengths and improve our weaknesses, we can eradicate the fake news epidemic and the culture of immediacy by the time Generation Z and Alpha get to the workplace.