How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

~John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a perpetual echo chamber. We follow the people we like and agree with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We read the news sites that have a similar worldview to ourselves. In the process, we trigger algorithms that curate our feeds, further reflecting our own views and biases back at us.

Consequently, our opinions aren’t being stress tested nearly as frequently as they should.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires. Our opinions are often based in emotion and group affiliation, not always facts.

I’ve recently finished reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. In a changing world, he says, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.

At the beginning of 2021 I committed to changing my mind on at least of couple of issues. So far I’ve changed my opinion on the benefits (or not) of lockdowns several times. I’ve shifted my position on climate change and also on universal basic income.

Most of us have a strong drive to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as it keeps us anchored. When your stance on controversial issues both cements your group identity and plants you in opposition to others, changing it can be a very difficult thing to do.

Like me you’ve probably seen a rise in the number of people in your social circles who are worrying about COVID vaccines. They probably aren’t anti-vaxxers, just a bit apprehensive or scared by the some of the negative stories circulating on social media.

Is it possible that the more the Government talks of the success of a vaccine programme, the more it pushes pro-vax messages or talks up ‘vaccine passports’ – that people become more entrenched in their views?

According to Adam Grant, almost definitely. In his book he outlines how from 2016 to 2018 measles spiked worldwide by 58%, with over 100,000 casualties despite a readily available vaccine.

In the U.S public officials have got tough on the problem with some warning that the unvaccinated can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to six months. Schools have shut their doors to unvaccinated children and one county even banned them from enclosed public places. And yet, the problem persisted.

Surely educating the parents – pointing out that fears about vaccines were unfounded – would work? Not so, in fact introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired. They ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when people read accounts of the dangers of measles saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all.

Why we resist facts

Presenting people with facts doesn’t always change their mind. Sometimes they harden our views. In experiments, researchers have presented statements to two kinds of people – those who believe that climate change is real and those who are deniers. They found that for both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, this strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it. This is because of a powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

The way to change people’s mind isn’t to present them with facts , or even to talk at them, it’s about listening to them. As Adam writes in his book “listening is a way of offering others our scarcest and most precious gift: attention.”

It’s through effective listening that the vaccine whisperers of Quebec did change people’s minds. Here, doctors are utilising a new approach to help sway these parents who are hesitant in getting their infants vaccinated. They are speaking to those who have “vaccine hesitancy.” The counselors go in depth with new parents by listening to their concerns and why they’re hesitant, as well as their fears. This isn’t about telling people what to do or think but to helping them find their own motivation to change. The counselors maintain an open conversation with the parents. They address all the parents’ concerns before there’s even a thought about making a vaccination appointment. New parents then have plenty of time to weigh up their options. This isn’t about coerciation or bullying, it’s more about exploring their hesitancy and giving them the motivation and space to make a decision. The right kind of listening encourages people to change.

People who are overweight , smoke or drink too much or do drugs know it’s bad for them. The last thing they need are facts, especially when they may have some alternative facts of their own.

Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe, and that’s why it’s so difficult to do.

All of us would benefit from changing our mind more often – but we are unlikely to do it if the end result is loneliness.

Being welcoming of other views, actually seeking out dissent and disagreement and having our ideas and thoughts challenged would lead to a happier and more productive world.

The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

“Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the worlds shittest PowerPoint presentation.”

The problem with data and how we’ve conflated data with truth. This has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Data doesn’t say anything. Humans say things. We’ve conflated data with truth. And this has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy

Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the world’s shittest PowerPoint presentation.

The slides, introduced by the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and its chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been variously described as unstructured, ugly and unclear on what they were trying to get across to the public.

Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent towards the latest lockdown – you had to be a near genius to draw anything meaningful from what was a truly baffling slide deck.

16 data heavy slides in just 12 minutes, some not even fitting on the screen. A spaghetti junction of graphs and charts rather than simple take away headlines. Labels and colour codes indistinguible or missing entirely.

This was a masterclass in how not to use data in your organisation.

There was a certain dark humour on Twitter with people wondering whether Death by PowerPoint was as painful as Death by COVID.

Of course, this is genuinely no laughing matter. How can key public health messages be delivered from the highest office of the country in a way that would embarrass the most inexperienced comms newbie?

One of the answers is that the data has been allowed to take over from the story. In the first lockdown the story was very clear indeed and we all complied. Now, I’m not sure we know what the story even is.

What the Government want us to do is to change our behaviours, and you make change through stories, not statistics.

We’ve all sat through presentations like this at work. We’ve all heard a presenter say “You probably can’t see this diagram from where you’re sitting but what it’s showing is…”.They are often put together by someone deeply in love with their own subject matter or persons with a strange proclivity for Venn and Sankey diagrams.

Whilst a good presentation almost always includes credible data, data alone doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. Having access to a lot of data is good. Knowing how to use it is better.

The reliance on data as a way to seek truth has boomed in recent years. The more data you are armed with the better, or so it seems.

I regularly hear companies say they are incapable of making a decision about something as they don’t have enough data, the right data, or because the data they have is of poor quality.

This notion of data equalling a divine truth needs challenging. As Andrea Jones-Rooy writes in Quartz, data only exists in the first place because humans chose to collect it, and they collected it using human-made tools. Therefore data is as fallible as people.

As she says “Data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place. As long as data is considered cold, hard, infallible truth, we run the risk of generating and reinforcing a lot of inaccurate understandings of the world around us.”

That said – we still need to believe in data. Data is necessary for us to understand the problem and to begin asking questions about it. It is only through asking those questions that we find a pathway towards a solution.

And therein lies the problem with the way much data is presented. It lends itself to generating confusion rather than great questions.

Or worse – it leads to mistrust.

Ed Conway, the numbers guy from Sky, has done a superb Twitter thread on this – “Lockdowns, like em or not, won’t work if no-one trusts the process and doesn’t comply. But that trust is earned. And easily lost. How do you earn trust? Well part of the answer is transparency. If you’re clear and honest about why you’re doing something and the evidence behind it, you will bring people along with you.”

Ed concludes that we need transparency, and that means not using out of date, poorly labelled charts to justify decisions. Or hiding data that helps explain why we’re facing unprecedented restrictions.

It’s a theme that Gavin Freeguard picks up for the Institute for Government – pointing out that badly presented data will be confusing to people inside government too. If we as the general public are having difficulty understanding messages across (and within) datasets, it suggests those inside government are having similar struggles. Indeed, making sense of the data is made nearly impossible by the sheer number of sources in use. There’s the ONS, PHE, NHS as well as other sources in Wales and Scotland.

The Case For Better Data

We need good data to ask better questions. It is only through those questions we’ll solve better problems and have greater impact.

We need to bring better data insights to our colleagues. We need to get better at ‘data storytelling’ that gives anyone, regardless of level or skill set, the ability to understand and use data in their jobs every single day.

It’s the best way to give our people the story about what’s happening and what we need them to do.

Poorly presented though, it may also be the worst.


Header image by Tom Fishburne

How To Lose Trust During Complex Times

Why are we losing trust in leaders during the pandemic?

The story has become about the data and nothing else. Great stories help us to persuade people to take action.

Stories about data persuade people to argue about the data.

Remember the good old days of the early lockdown?

A time of communities discovering or rediscovering vital social connections.

A new found appreciation for public institutions and the people who keep our local shops and services running.

A sense of going to back to basics and spending more time on the relationships that truly matter.

The initial stages of the pandemic seemed to disprove all the reports of the decline of trust. On the contrary , we showed remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We calmly listened to the experts, followed their advice and changed our lives beyond recognition.

Fast forward just 26 weeks and we are facing a very different outlook. Arguably we have never looked so fractured as a nation. It seems that the government, and indeed the opposition, has substantially squandered the trust people were willing to grant it in the early days of the pandemic.

Whatever your political view – any era in which mingling and talking to friends and neighbours is illegal and where reporting people to the police is actively encouraged , is corrosive for sustaining strong communities and sets the stage for a low trust, toxic environment.

What can our institutions learn from this if we are to avoid the same mistakes?

Losing trust in an institution (or an individual) stems from betrayal: When we feel lied to, or taken advantage of, trust evaporates almost overnight.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that institutions can have a social purpose and transcend individuals by creating norms and rules that people can count on. Basically, institutions are the building blocks of society. If we lose trust in an institution, dysfunction will follow until that institution is replaced by something else that can govern our behaviour and make life predictable again.

Right now – life is far from predictable, people don’t have norms they can count upon and the rules change on a regular basis with little advance notice. People are looking for a simple, believable message.

In the early days of the pandemic the message was simple and believable. People understood what the stakes were and the rules – though draconian – were perfectly clear. The story stuck in people’s heads and we complied – almost universally.

In recent weeks the compelling story has been dropped in favour of less than compelling statistics.

The already infamous graph of doom , used to illustrate a potential scenario if the coronavirus proceeds unchecked ( a failure to act = 50,000 cases a day by mid-October) – made a fatal mistake. The story became about the data and nothing else.

Stories about data are never interesting or believable unless you are deeply unusual. Data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

Great stories help us to persuade people to take action. Stories about data persuade people to argue about the data.

Fortunately, both science and history show us how we can get trust back once more.

Trust is built through engagement and integrity – listening, providing information, being transparent and following through on your promises. Admitting you don’t have all the answers – far from making you look indecisive – makes you believable and attracts people to your cause.

Let’s Kill Leadership

For some reason we seem incapable of engendering a style of leadership where you can say ‘I don’t know’.

In complex and uncertain environments, hierarchical models of command and control simply stop working.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively. We can choose to make lots of small decisions owned by the crowd rather than massively big ones owned by a single leader.

Believability is built by saying “I don’t know what the solution really is but this is what I think and this is what I’ll try, and I really think we should all give this a go. Are you with me?”

Pretending to have answers when you clearly have none fools no-one.

How to build trust?

Tell stories: good ones.

Tell stories: true ones. 


Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Indifference Towards Truth: Rebuilding Trust In a Post Lockdown World

If ever there was a time for critical thinking to make a comeback it’s right about now.

This post was written in week eight of the UK lockdown , 55 days in which we’ve generated more speculation, more opinion and more outright bullshit than at any other time in human history. (That statement , by the way, is also bullshit as I have no evidence for it whatsoever..)

This is the first worldwide crisis of the social media age – where mainstream media competes with podcasters and YouTubers to present the latest hot take. It’s interpreted and enhanced by a increasingly powerful citizen-led commentary on Facebook and Twitter , which provides the final version of the truth for many of our communities.

For example, coronavirus being a man-made disease designed and/or supported by Government to kill the elderly, the poor and to lower population levels isn’t just a fringe conspiracy theory. I have people in my timeline, people I’d previously thought as perfectly rational, sharing this freely.

The World Health Organisation has labelled the spread of fake news about the outbreak an “infodemic”. One thing is clear: a pandemic is no time for bullshit.

As we all begin to press the reset button and return to our schools, businesses and leisure activities it’s worth considering how misinformation is going to shape what comes next.

The people who left our offices on 20th March will not be the same when they return. They won’t want to sit at a hot desk. They won’t be making rounds of drinks for people. They may have doubts about their job security – and might even be distrustful of the actions their employer is taking to cope in this crisis.

How can corporate messaging – to our customers and our colleagues – cut through the infodemic?

Some useful pointers are contained in the most entertaining academic paper I’ve read in a whilst: Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit.

In the paper the authors, Ian McCarthy, David Hannah, Leyland Pitt and Jane McCarthy,  doubt that any organisation will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, but argue that by taking a number of steps, astute leaders can work toward stemming its flood.

“Most of us would agree that our workplaces are awash with bullshit” say the authors.  They contend bullshit crops up during meetings, corporate announcements and get togethers, as well as emails.

What counts as workplace bullshit?

The authors define workplace bullshit as “taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth”. This differs substantially from lying.  “A liar is someone who is interested in the truth, knows it, and deliberately misrepresents it. In contrast, a bullshitter has no concern for the truth and does not know or care what is true or is not.”

They provide a useful example to illustrate this point of a leader informing employees that a proposed strategic change will not result in job losses.

Lying: The leader knows there will be job losses but hides or manipulates the truth. The leader is lying by stating known untruths.

Bullshitting: The leader has no idea whether there will be job losses or not, and is thus not hiding or concealing the truth. The leader is bullshitting because they neither know nor care whether their statements are true or false.

The authors provide a useful tool for us to challenge misinformation – the wonderfully titled C.R.A.P framework.

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Rather than passively drown in BS we can first of all expect it – we are all bullshitters to a degree – but we can comprehend it, recognise it, act against it, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent it.

At work we’ve created the ideal petri dish for bullshit to spread. As the paper states the changing nature of communication in the corporate environment, email, video-conferencing, intranets, and shared screens, in addition to face-to-face conversations, paper memorandums, and conventional meetings provide extremely fertile ground.

I’d argue that this is exacerbated by 24/7 rolling news and social media that provides endless conversational space to fill. And the social media business model just doesn’t stack up unless that vacant space is filled – be it with truth or untruth.

Four Tactics That Might Prevent Bullshit

In a previous post I outlined a few ideas for reducing the spread of BS:

Get Better At Problem Definition:

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings:

As Andre Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are too often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion:

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint:

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

In Confronting Indifference the authors explore these themes more usefully and recommend that our organisations foster a culture of inviting employees to think critically— through scepticism, curiosity, and rational inquiry.

These are not always behaviours that our organisations invite. It’s a lot easier to manage a compliant herd than a questioning and curious crowd.

I’m already tired of the use of the phrase ‘new normal’ but I’m pretty certain that what comes next will require purposeful thinking and questioning on a scale we haven’t seen before.

Better solutions ultimately require better opinions.


 

As well the report paper cited one of the authors Ian McCarthy has an excellent blog that you can access here 

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