A couple of weeks ago, my family came together during a difficult time, when my father had a stroke. As we gathered together in the hospital, with much uncertainty over the eventual outcome, often our conversations would turn to our memories of the words of wisdom he had shared over the years. Some of it was quite funny, but all of it was wise. Although, at the time I am writing this, we still do not know what will happen next, I thought it would be appropriate over the next few weeks to share some of the wisdom I have learned from him over the years. Some will be a repeat of previous posts (because I had already been sharing his wisdom), and some will be topics I haven’t shared before. This week, I am starting with one that I shared about a year and a half ago.
“Either it’s true or it’s not.” That was one of the phrases that I heard frequently from my father when I was younger, and, while it seems to be a simple statement, I have learned that it contains great truth. It makes me think of a recent television commercial for an insurance company in which a woman tells her friend that she is going on a date with a French model that she met online. When the “French model” shows up, he is obviously not what he claimed to be, but in her response, she claims that it must be true because she read it on the Internet. Or think about the typical statement made by a politician, the typical news story, or frequent social media claims (including the wealthy widow from Nigeria who needs your help to get her millions out of the country). Often, what is said comes from a personal bias, from a desire to win approval (or re-election), from incomplete information, or is simply a flat-out lie. And many (most?) people are quick to accept what they hear as truth, without question. The reality is, just because someone or something claims to be true does not mean that it is.
This is not a problem that is new to the current digital age. On October 30, 1938, a dramatic broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds caused a reaction due to its realistic portrayal of an alien invasion from Mars. In actuality, few people believed it to be true, but it still sparked a media outrage from the printed news on the believability of broadcast news. And history is full of rumors and legends that caused reactions and responses because a story was believed to be true.
This leads me to the importance of having an “either it’s true or it’s not” mindset. You will inevitably hear claims, statements, and rumors from every direction, whether from an employee, a supervisor, a constituent, or an external source. When you do, sometimes the tendency is to jump, and then to react immediately with a response because of what you have heard. But that’s dangerous, because it may be that what you have heard is not true, or contains misinformation, or is misleading or incomplete. And if that is so, your response could potentially make matters worse and reflect poorly on you.
When you understand that everything you hear may or may not be true, you will learn to respond to information by first confirming its truth. What a difference that makes in your response! On a surface level, this is as simple as checking facts and data to make sure that they are accurate. When it involves people, it requires asking questions to determine the full story and get all of the available information. And on a deeper level, it requires identifying nuances and implications to see if what is being stated is a valid application, because, as the study of statistics teaches us, “correlation does not imply causation” (which means that, just because two phenomena happen together, one did not necessarily cause the other even if it appears that way).
So what should you do? A wise leader, upon hearing information, will remind himself that “either it’s true or it’s not,” and be diligent to determine the truth. Ask questions, look up facts, differentiate between causation and correlation, and get the full story. Then, whether it’s true or not, you will be more equipped to respond appropriately and will therefore make better decisions.