24 Nov 2016 21:32 IST

Leading in a ‘post-truth’ world

Thoughts are powerful, but feelings work. Be the leader who harnesses both.

The Oxford English dictionary selected ‘post-truth’ as the International Word of the Year. Post-truth is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In some sense this is a continuation of last year’s word of the year — emoji, which related to the pervasive use of the emotion icons in everyday social media communication.

This year’s choice is partly a bleak reflection of some of the recent events of our times — Brexit, a Trump victory and, closer home, a Mistry ouster — but is also an alert to leaders to develop a new awareness and new skills to deal with these post-truth times.

My own post-truth moment was driven home when my daughter, Marcela — who is now eleven-years-old — was around four. She hated brushing her teeth every night. Brushing time was nagging time when either my wife or I would have to be after her, cajoling, scolding and most often closing with the threat of a spanking. And even when she did brush her teeth, her face would be the winning advert for the ‘Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children’.

Something needed to be done to get her to change. We started with logic and the facts. We would tell her about how food could get stuck and how bacteria would form on her teeth and how important it was to go to sleep with clean teeth. Nothing worked. And then one day, as part of our experimenting with approaches, we showed her a few gory pictures of decayed teeth and the ugly and revolting faces they often created. “ Marcela, how would you like to look like this?” We discovered the true meaning of the term “overnight results”. She became a dentist’s delight; brushing her teeth every night, vigorously. No nagging. No reminders. Where facts had failed, emotion emerged victorious.

Power of emotion

Human brains are wired to handle logic and emotion differently. The best analogy was one used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt likens our emotional side to an elephant and our rational side to its rider or mahout. Picture that — the little mahout perched astride a gigantic elephant. True, the mahout may hold the reins and wield the little ankush (or elephant goad) to control the elephant, but the tension in their relationship is palpable. If they had a differing point of view about anything, it would be ‘bye-bye mahout’. That explains post-truth, the power of emotion and why we sometimes behave ‘illogically’.

Leaders must learn to recognise, harness, and balance the power of emotions, both in themselves and others.

Recognising emotion

Today, it could be an unreasonable request from a faculty at college that sparks a protest; tomorrow it could be a union negotiation going haywire. What on the surface looks like a logic-driven dispute is often uncovered to expose a raging emotional volcano below. All attempts by a leader to logically address the issue are often futile, and can sometimes aggravate the situation.

It is time then to move from having the discussion with the little mahout to starting a conversation with our pachyderm friend. We need to shift from appealing to reason to appealing to emotion. Alan Mulally, President and CEO at Ford was a master at recognising feelings at work. He was famous for leaving handwritten notes for his employees praising their work. When people talked to him they felt they were the only ones in the room he cared about. Mulally made people feel better about being at Ford and they helped him turn Ford around.

Harnessing emotion

One of the most important areas where we need to harness emotion is in our communication. For example, business presentations. The traditional PowerPoint deck clogs every manager’s laptop. Meetings drag on as a presenter scrolls through a mind-numbing series of slides, some with trend-lines on them, others with pie charts and then, of course, bullet points. As I often repeat to myself when I’m preparing a presentation: “They’re called bullet points for a reason – the more you have, the more likely you will have a very dead audience”.

Consider using alternative presentation formats, for example Prezi, or others with similar features. They eschew the linear format and go for a spatial format. It lends itself much better to story-telling rather than a dry bombardment of statistics and facts.

And, as all great presenters will tell you, audiences react to stories. Stories can shock, inspire and drive change more powerfully than logic can. We must start to view our presentations as vehicles for change and not just tools for information. Pictures, a shocking statistic or a compelling example can help make that transition.

There’s a story of a factory manager who walked onto the shop floor as a shift ended and asked: “ How many products did this shift turnout?” “ 120” was the answer. He then took a chalk and scrawled a large 120 on the factory floor. When the next shift came in, they asked what the 120 was all about and were told that it was the score of the previous shift. “ Oh really?” they said, “ We can easily beat that.” They closed their shift at 140 and erased replaced the 120 on the floor with 140. You can guess what happened when the next shift came in.

Consider if the factory manager had put up a chart and talked the workers through the merits of increasing their productivity, the penalties for not doing so and the benefits to management and the customer. That would have been talking to the mahout. Instead, his communication targeted the elephant, with much better results.

How could we follow his example when we are faced with the leader’s challenge to change team behaviour?

Balancing emotion

Post-truth can have both negative and positive connotations. If it means a drifting from the truth, from facts, then the exercise could end up creating a delusion that could comfort in the short term, but destroy in the long term. Donald Trump seems to be a case in point. Post-truth could also have a positive connotation for a leader who chooses to see the facts, to embrace the truth, and then harness the power of emotion to communicate with and influence the people he works with.

Thoughts are powerful, but feelings make the world go round. Wise is the leader who learns to work with both.

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