In Search of Truth – Part 1: Information and trust in leadership
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
This line ends the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. The poem is essentially an exploration to discern the true meaning of an object (the urn) that is under the poet’s study. It is full of paradox and different perspectives and interpretations of the various depictions on the urn and even the shape of the urn itself. In the poem, Keats poses many questions to us about the urn and, at the end, tries to assure us of its own apparent wisdom, as captured in those famous final lines. As presented by the poem, it would be safe to conclude the urn does not have one overriding, singular meaning. Over the years, readers and critics have made many different interpretations of the questions and exclamations the poem contains.
So, what does all this have to do with leadership and the search for truth? And why does this matter?
Leaders are expected to know, to have an opinion, and to be able to express a clear point of view.
Their followers may demand and find comfort in having some level of certainty and predictability, and they may not only look to but also want to trust their leaders to provide this. And yet the complexity, ambiguity, and dynamism of today’s business environment make definitive positions harder and perhaps inherently riskier to take. How leaders form their opinions and make decisions are hugely shaped by how they approach gathering information. How they are seen to go about the business of becoming well-informed has a material impact on their credibility and, consequently, the level of trust their followers are willing to place in them. How they express their point of view and their willingness to say when they don’t know, how they permit themselves to be vulnerable and humble, and if they admit when they don’t have an answer or can’t forecast or predict the future can all have a material impact on how they are trusted.
Challenges today are complex.
This is not a new phenomenon; however, most of the challenges we face today are hugely complex. Our attempts to address them, though, can often start with overly narrow definitions of the problem that are limited by subjective opinion and judiciously selected facts. The danger then is that we risk failing to recognize material factors that can derail our well-intended decisions, interventions, and solutions and render them ineffective. In Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber’s book, Wicked & Wise, the authors build on the research of Horst WJ Rittel and Melvin M. Webber and conclude that in fact, most seemingly intractable—or as they term them, wicked—problems are multidimensional and have multiple stakeholders, causes, interdependent systems, and solutions, and, to cap all that, each of these elements are themselves constantly evolving. All of this speaks to a need for leaders to take a wider and deeper approach to information gathering and encourage their colleagues to do the same, in order to be better informed about the challenges they are facing and to be better placed to evaluate the likely impact—both the positive, intended outcomes and potential unintended consequences of the interventions they select.
Misinformation is rife in society.
Moreover, not only are the problems leaders face more complex but also, misinformation is rife in today’s society. We may believe that our sources of information are diverse, trustworthy, and impartial. But are they?
Despite our best endeavors to be discerning, unless we make a conscious effort, our sources of information in this digital age are more likely to be determined by how our profile is understood by social media algorithms and by with whom we choose to socialize our thinking. If we are unaware of this, we can unwittingly be feeding ourselves a highly partial rather than impartial view of the world. We have seen how different social groups can come to see the world in such different and often polarized ways. Each group being fed and consuming information that confirms their narrow view can express complete opposition to other viewpoints in more extreme cases and, at their worst, denies their legitimacy. These social and social media bubbles create isolated tribes whose narratives are restricted and who act like an echo chamber where only like-minded expressions of opinion are accommodated. It is clear that a more holistic view can only be gained by elevating our thinking and making room to accommodate a wider range of perspectives. However, this still calls for us to question how we trust the information we depend on and to consider how, as leaders, we persuade others then to trust in our judgment when we ask them to.
Trust in leaders is declining, but there is an opportunity for business leaders to have a greater positive impact on society.
The current data on trust levels does not make great reading. Trust in leaders across all sectors in society has been steadily declining. The Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer shows a widespread fall in levels of trust in governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and businesses. It is not surprising then, given this worrying level of distrust in government, that we have seen political leaders’ proclamations being subjected to fact-checking. Ironically, this has largely been conducted by media in whom we also have declining levels of trust.
Edelman suggests that at this time, there is an opportunity for leaders in business to take the lead on a wide range of issues and have a greater and more positive impact in shaping our society, not only for the benefit of the organizations they lead but also for society as a whole. Their findings indicated that business is trusted more than government and trust in employers is stable or rising in 18 out of 27 countries. Worryingly though, among the nine countries where trust is declining are the U.S., Japan, and the UK.
How Should Leaders Approach Information Gathering?
Being trusted requires transparency and diligence when sharing information, honesty when expressing a point of view, and a willingness to listen to others. So how do we reduce the risk of being misinformed as leaders?
Recognize that all truths or versions thereof are partial.
First, we need to reflect on the nature of truth, in a similar vein to Keats. We need to develop a richer understanding of the partial nature of what we consider to be true. All our perspectives are distorted to an extent by our own approach to meaning making. Self-reflection is required to examine the nature of our own perspectives and how they are influenced and informed. As we reflect, we may be surprised to find hidden biases that are shaping our worldview and predetermining which information sources we place and, in some cases, misplace our trust.
Accept that multiple and seemingly incompatible truths can and do exist.
Second, recognize that multiple competing and seemingly incompatible truths may coexist. Discounting facts that don’t align with our personal worldview is fraught with danger. Rather than seeing conflicting or contrary views as sources of tension, we should view them as a rich source of potential learning and creativity. Each perspective is in and of itself partial, and in each perspective, there probably is some small but potentially important nugget of truth. Gathering a wide range of perspectives gives us a better chance of identifying not only the larger, most significant nuggets but also the smaller yet important ones to factor into our thinking.
Recognize that what holds true for now may not tomorrow.
Third, acknowledge the temporal nature of truth. What we assume to be true today may over time turn out to be less true than we first thought. We need to stay constantly curious and intentionally leverage the power of critical thinking as a necessary skill set to test assumptions to see if they still hold true as situations change and evolve.
Be discerning, yes, but also build an eclectic information diet; the more diverse, the better.
Finally, consider expanding the range of information sources you explore. Intentionally consider the diversity of your network. Many organizations trust and over index on making use of internally generated data and are highly selective about making use of external information providers. There are two potential traps here that leader’s risk unintentionally falling into. The first is where we overly narrow our perspective and the second is where we only seek information that supports our preferred narrative and discount that which contradicts it. To avoid this, leaders need to seek a wide variety of independent outsider viewpoints. Consider perspectives generated from as many other vantage points as possible, e.g., competitors, other industries, and industry analysts. Make sure your selection is truly diverse and does not inherently amplify unconscious bias. Leaders need to consider information sources as if part of a diet; to be of nutritional value, it needs to be diverse.
Taking a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to information gathering will help improve the effectiveness of leaders’ decision-making. After all, we might be able to agree, on principle, that the better-informed leaders are, the better position they will be in to make decisions.
Next in this blog series, we will look at how decisions are made and the steps leaders can take to improve decision quality in their teams and the wider organizations they lead.
Alan Watkins and Ken Wilber (2015), Wicked & Wise
Rittel, Horst WJ, Webber Melvin M. (1973), “Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences