Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.
Here we are in 2017; and at the beginning of the New Year. Last year, as a consequence of the USA presidential election, many in this country and around the world tried to grasp the concept of “post-truth”. It is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “debates framed by appeals to emotions rather than facts”. And now, before even a month has passed, we are confronted with the claimed presidential authority of “alternative facts”. While both “post truth” and “alternative facts” claims have been scorned in the political realm, haven’t we all experienced similar dilemmas within our organizations? In this blog, I will reflect on the importance of differentiating between opinions and facts, in order to tackle organizational issues with clarity.
Facts vs. Opinions and Beliefs
Beliefs and facts are not equivalent. Beliefs are convictions that we hold to be true while facts comprise information backed by verifiable evidence. Beliefs can be based on facts; however often they originate from our values, our identities and our assumptions about the world and hence meet, and arise from, some of our deepest human needs. Consequently, beliefs, rather than facts, often inform our opinions about specific matters.
Being mere humans, we unconsciously confuse our opinions with facts. It is almost our default mode because our world-views, the underlying framework for our opinions, have become like the operating system of our thinking. Thus we likely believe that our opinions are true merely because they are our opinions. And the level of certainty with which we hold our opinions does not correlate with whether we have based them on facts. High confidence does not equal objective proof. This confusion becomes an issue as we join with others to solve problems and resolve our differences both in our personal and organizational lives.
Importance of Differentiating Facts from Opinions
Many times over the years I have been asked to work with groups in conflict. Often the groups are paralyzed due to the members holding fast to their own arguments at the expense of entertaining the opinions of others. I have seen a common pattern running through these situations. The most rigidly held opinions tend not to be based on evidence and often are actually immune to it. Contrary facts may actually strengthen their convictions! This observation is supported by research reported this month (Jan. 2017) in the Scientific American:
“When we are presented with facts that contradict our world-view we are likely to feel threatened and may merely double down on our beliefs. The conflicting data presents a threat.2 Facts become the enemy to be slain.”
When faced with this intransigence, I have noticed that those involved have not identified the difference between facts and opinions, thus, again, believing that their opinions are true merely because they hold them. To resolve these conflicts, we work together to uncover the assumptions that underlie the opinions. Likewise we focus on exploring the evidence, or lack of it, related to the problems at hand. If the individuals involved are willing to suspend their assumptions/emotion for that limited time and purpose, then this process can lead to the resolution of some of their differences. And as the facilitator, it is my job to ensure that members can own their emotions without feeling unduly threatened or disrespected. Ideally the discussions lead to a greater understanding of the basis for an opinion and the motivation that underlies resistance to any contrary opinion or facts. So-called “alternative facts” are examined within the context of beliefs, emotions and evidence. Of course this approach is not guaranteed to succeed. After all, strongly held beliefs can be tenaciously resistant to evidence.
My Facts vs. Your Facts
Everyone has the right to hold his or her own world-view. However, I believe that all of us must attempt to understand the premises upon which our own and others’ views are based. Of course our values, feelings and beliefs will always be the beginning point for our arguments and our actions. However, I do believe that we should seek to understand and acknowledge the origins of our opinions. Easy to say, hard to do.
Nevertheless, facts matter. Of course no one will ever corner the market for facts. Individuals may have access to different facts. Sharing this information can add to the collective pool of knowledge that allows good decisions to emerge. However, some facts are more valid than others depending upon their basis. And alternative facts, to the extent to which they are stated without evidence, are never acceptable for justifying our opinions. Rather, we should acknowledge those cases, where our opinions and conclusions are based on our own values or needs, rather than conjuring false evidence or stating our opinion as fact just because we believe it. To do so requires self-insight and maturity. As scientists remind us, science can never promise knowledge of absolute truth but it enables us to eliminate what is false.
Organizations are complex and diverse. If we are to contribute to our own organization’s success, rather than hinder its progress, each of us should seek self-awareness. As we understand ourselves, we will become more capable of appreciating the diversity of others. Our ability to move forward together depends on mutual respect, which comes from understanding. The future of our organizations, and indeed our societies, rests on our ability to leverage our differences to meet our common goals. We have no room for post-truth or alternative facts.
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants, a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.
 Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts. Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/the-delusion-of-alternative-facts/
 Michael Shermer. How to Convince Someone when Facts Fail.Scientific American, Jan 1 2017 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/
 Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts.Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/the-delusion-of-alternative-facts/