Is your business built on “alternative facts”?

It’s a natural tendency, but you should worry about the consequences

Like many people I’m sceptical about the labelling of what people – typically leaders of superpowers, or journalists – say or write as “fake news” or “alternative facts”, and worried that this kind of mud-slinging will lead to a general decrease of trust, when that’s something the world needs more of, not less.

But then I discovered two things:

  • I’ve got a tendency to use “alternative facts” when it suits me
  • It’s something that we’re hard-wired to do and – for better or worse – has made us the dominant species on the planet.

And business leaders need to be aware of the dual-edged sword that this evolutionary advantage gives us.

True confessions

I was picked up by a client recently for appearing to state something as an irrefutable truth when – in truth – it was an observation of some behaviours that indicated an area of improvement. I apologised for my oversight and we moved on. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had done: in my eagerness to reinforce something that my client was already aware of I had over-edited my point to remove almost all the words that had originally suggested it was an indicative observation. The result: drifting into the domain of alternative facts.

Then, by coincidence, I picked up the book I am currently reading – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – where author Yuval Noah Harari makes the assertion that everything that homo sapiens has achieved is built on fiction. What he means by this is that the reason that homo sapiens managed to achieve dominance on the planet – and eliminated other human species such as Neanderthals – was that we developed the ability to tell stories about other people, about what we or they had done and about things that we wanted to achieve, thus enabling large groups (ideally around 150) to cooperate in hunting or other joint endeavours.

This is something I had realised whenever I had stopped to ask myself faintly philosophical questions about why things have a monetary value, why wars start and why so many people like Ed Sheeran. We all agree that certain things are the way they are, largely without question, because we accept the story behind them.

Does this matter?

This realisation made me feel slightly better about exaggerating something to make a point: clearly I was building on an innate human capability to make stuff up and to tell a better story.

But beyond that, realising that the stories we tell each other can have a profound effect is the most important trait that leaders at all levels possess. Leaders that tell stories well, and with authenticity, are more likely to achieve lasting success than those that don’t.

You can see this in the world of customer experience: if I have a good experience I’ll tell someone about it; if I have a bad experience, I’ll most likely tell even more people, maybe exaggerating a little to make the story more interesting.

Brands of course do this all the time, and perhaps should do more of it. Many years ago, I used to stay regularly at a Marriott hotel whilst working in Vienna. At the time Marriott was running a newspaper ad campaign with stories of excellent customer service, including the time a concierge had loaned his cufflinks to a customer who had an important meeting and had forgotten his. I thought of testing this out and turning up to the front desk with un-linked cuffs but lacked the chutzpah to try it, so I never found out how prevalent this excellent service culture was. Looking at some stories of service it’s quite a thing in Marriott and other hotels.

True or false?

You might be forgiven for thinking that if success comes from telling the best stories we might as well just make stuff up to suit our personal or business agendas. But there’s a catch: it helps if the stories are true. A tribal leader who tells people of a great herd of bison to hunt just over the hill isn’t going to last long if that proves to be incorrect just as a business leader who paints a compelling vision based on empowering their workforce is going to have a tough job if a significant number of people find redundancy notices in their inboxes the next morning. And if I had carried out my testing of Marriott’s cufflink-lending service and found it wanting, I’d have moved to another hotel pretty quickly (maybe).

In a world where fake news can spread instantaneously, and alternative facts can seem like a viable alternative to actual facts, leaders at all levels have a responsibility to increase the integrity of their messages they or their companies send out. We might be merely human but that doesn’t stop us taking responsibility for our evolutionary tendencies.

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