A friend of mine has a coffee cup which displays the pithy caption “I see Dumb people”- a lovely play on The Sixth Sense but seemingly, more and more appropriate if we pay attention to the conversation in some parts of the media and public discourse.

The impulse to contribute our ‘two cents worth’ is intrinsic in all humans and I suspect that I am not the only person shaking my head at the incredibly ill-informed things that some people say. Still there is hope in that the more well-travelled, better educated or widely read (and I might say many of the younger people today) have an improved sense of the world not being binary in a way that contrasts the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality held by some, yet it is often these black/white, us/them people who have the loudest voices and manage to play on fear to convince people that what they are saying is the ‘truth’.

The world and the 7 billion or so if us who share it make a complex and changing mix and if we are to navigate the human jungle in a productive way, it is more important than ever to be well-informed and open-minded.

Perhaps it is fear of this change that has caused some people to retreat into fixed positions regardless of the mountain of evidence that shows their approach to be untenable and unsustainable. The world is passing them by and they don’t know how to respond.

The enormous amount of information available on the World Wide Web has both improved and worsened this phenomenon.

There is an enormous benefit in the democratisation of information. The wealth of knowledge of generations, is available at a click of a button but so is every nutter conspiracy theory ever devised and anyone adept at using clever web-based software can make it harder to distinguish between the two.

We can now indulge our natural human tendency for pattern matching to find ‘evidence’ that supports our beliefs no matter how irrational.

It is not necessary for me to offer a comprehensive list of the thoroughly debunked beliefs that some people cling to, regardless of the mountain of proof to the contrary staring them in the face. We all believe what we believe because we are constructing the world we perceive in our head as we go along.

Our perception is never reality. It is our version of reality.

In the world there are established facts. There are things that are researched, repeatable, demonstrable and reliable. Then there are theories. People often confuse a Theory with a Hypothesis. A Hypothesis is a guess as to a cause. A Theory is an explanation that has come from testing a hypothesis. Theories are supported by evidence and are refined and improved upon until they have sufficient evidence to be accepted as the explanation for something.

Science is a great example of a process where the accepted ideas are never safe from challenge. It is built on peer review which consists of every other scientist in your field trying to shoot down your theory. If it is survives peer review it is considered reliable but it always remains subject to challenge.

Perhaps our opinions should be subject to the same process. Even more so with the media from where many develop their own opinions.

In years gone by, newspapers and TV News had real journalists fact-checking their stories and opinions were confined to the Editorial Section or clearly labelled as Opinion pieces. This surge towards News as a ‘retail product’ rather than a public service has seen a whole industry of ‘Fact Check’ organisations emerge for the express purpose of verifying or debunking “News” stories.

Perhaps we need specific consumer labelling laws applied to News organisations where Newspapers and nightly News shows must display clear disclaimers stating “Assembled from local and imported opinions. May contain traces of Fact”

Facts matter. Reason matters. Intelligent debate matters. It is what has brought us from the plains of Africa to the modern world.

Just like a Hypothesis, a belief or opinion is a place to start not a position to hold against all odds.

When confronted by an opinion with clear faults, you can choose to ignore it or if you feel the need to engage, use a questioning approach like: “That is interesting – what report/statistics/research is that based on?” and “Do you think that is always true?” or “The last time you were there is that how you found the people?”

Unfounded opinions usually melt in the glare of a question asking for verification.

Emotion blinds logic and rationality. The trend towards conspiracy theories and ‘denialism’* in some quarters is evidence of this.

So what has this to do with leadership and the working world?

Well as leaders it is crucial for us to be objective and to not allow our emotions to interfere with our judgement – particularly with regard to employees and to recognise that the stronger we feel emotionally about something, the more we should investigate and critique our own opinions before we speak or act.

If we are to be credible as leaders and fair to our people (which is a fundamental necessity to ensure their support) we have to work diligently to ensure that what we say is based on the most accurate information available and where new information becomes available, to present it honestly and when appropriate adjust our course.

In every performance management case where I have advocated for an employee, the Management has failed to be objective, know their own policies and procedures, had decided the outcome before commencing the investigation (and before meeting with the employee) and did not look at how their own behaviour, culture, practices and policies contributed to the employee error or behaviour.

In each case the Management had to overturn its decision and in some cases reinstate and/or pay compensation to the employee.

Completely unnecessary and just plain dumb.

A pause to reflect or research is always preferable to a self-inflicted mouthpocalypse…


*If you are interested in the Denialism phenomenon, I highly recommend two books:

Denialism by Michael Specter http://www.amazon.com/Denialism-Irrational-Thinking-Planet-Threatens/dp/0143118315/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421624470&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=denuialism+michael+specter

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore http://www.amazon.com/Assault-Reason-Al-Gore/dp/0143113623/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421624515&sr=8-1&keywords=the+assault+on+reason&pebp=1421624527824&peasin=143113623 )