Are your decisions influenced by fake news?

Source: Management Team (18/01/2019); Author: Katleen De Stobbeleir (Professor of Leadership at Vlerick Business School)

Both in our professional and personal lives, we make decisions all the time. And of course we make mistakes. History shows us that even the best leaders sometimes make the wrong decisions. With the rise of fake news, however, there is a risk that the number of wrong decisions being taken will reach unprecedented levels. This is because fake news goes far further than being a way to manipulate elections or sometimes expose unwitting consumers to hidden advertising messages.

Fake news can also affect the reputation of your business and even influence your own decisions. For example, Starbucks fell prey to a fake news campaign when a false message appeared online stating that it would be giving immigrants free cappuccinos. Their competitors were eager to jump on this news and failed to check it first. A study published in Science (by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Arafalse) has shown that this is not an isolated incident, and that false information spreads faster, wider, further and deeper than correct information. According to the researchers, false information has a 70% greater chance of being disseminated than the truth. Why? Because fake news is created to stir up more emotions, and is often “new”. And the human brain is more triggered by new, emotion-laden information.

Even as a leader or the head of a company, you are not immune to fake news. Leaders often work at such a high tempo and under such great pressure to perform that it can sometimes be tempting not to thoroughly check the facts. Management scientists Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton identified this problem as far back as 2006. They describe how managers often resort to copycat behaviour, the hype of the day. What is more, they often take a very dogmatic approach, in particular taking decisions that align with their own strengths.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledges that this reality can be detrimental to decision-making, and so asks his managers to not make PowerPoint presentations with proposals, but instead write 6-page memos. In this way he ensures that these leaders only make proposals that they have studied in depth. Furthermore, the memos are read together (in silence) at the beginning of meetings, to prevent unprepared managers from bluffing their way through and taking decisions on a purely emotional basis.

There are other methods you can also employ to ensure that you take decisions that are well-founded and not only based on emotion or what is “new”. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton advise 6 strategies:

1. Don't treat old ideas as if they are brand new

Compel yourself and others to use sources, and to cite these sources when they propose an idea. This means that the ideas are substantiated, not merely founded on intuition or emotion.

2. Be cautious when you hear the word “groundbreaking”

So-called ‘breakthroughs’ are often the result of small, incremental steps and the hard work of many experts. So be extra alert about magic success formulas, catchy titles and immediately applicable formulas, and ensure that so-called groundbreaking studies are imbedded in a wider domain of expertise.

3. Focus on collective knowledge

It is only in the business world that the word “guru” has a positive connotation. Yet knowledge is rarely created by individual geniuses: instead it results from the hard work of a collective of experts. So don't just be drawn in by gurus, because they are frequently only the messengers of a strong marketing team. Instead, enter into dialogue with larger groups of experts (at business schools, for example).

4. Think through the pros and cons

Don't only examine the advantages of particular “solutions” and new systems, but also force yourself to look at their disadvantages. This ensures that your decisions are more substantiated.

5. Use success stories (and stories about failures) for illustration purposes only

Good examples are illustrative, but provide no evidence about whether something will or will not work. For every success story there are often multiple businesses that followed exactly the same strategy but failed. So be sure to look beyond the success stories.

6. Take a neutral position towards ideologies and theories

Sometimes we are so blinded by our own ideologies that we are no longer open to new insights. So surround yourself with people who have different ideologies.

Business leaders who employ these tactics, Pfeffer and Sutton point out, are more successful in finding the right balance between modest openness and strong decision-making skills.

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