Conspiracy theory culture is on the rise in general. But in my observation, even the most reasonable people have a conspiracy-related problem in the way we throw around logic in business.
Tell me if this kind of thing has ever happened to you:
I once worked with an executive who would throw their weight around by saying, “You have no data to show that I’m wrong.”
They’d say this when proposing dicey plans, when claiming that customers had certain hard-to-believe beliefs, or when levying ad-hominem attacks against people they disagreed with.
What was missing from this person's logic was the data showing that they might be right.
It used to be that conspiracy theorists were either paranoid people on the fringes of society, or independent researchers obsessed with investigating a certain topic. But until those investigations yielded actual proof, our authorities didn’t treat the theories as valid.
They were clear about what we knew and what we didn’t know yet.
But it turns out that many of us don't behave that way when it comes to more down-to-earth topics than the moon landing.
One of the key functions that humans look to authority figures for is accurate information. To do an optimal job—as team members building a business or as citizens participating in a democracy—we need to trust that our leaders and partners are giving us truth in a timely way.
If we want to work together effectively, we need to have a shared understanding of proven facts v.s. unproven theories.
Even though a person in a position of power is entitled to their opinions and predictions, sharing unproven ideas as if they are proven fact carries extra weight coming from an authority. It's like peeing in the hot tub and not allowing anyone to get out.
And here's the truth: This happens to all of us.
As I’ve writen before, nobody wants to be wrong. If you tell your team that the moon landing was faked—or that you think you're right about some customer issue—you’re either deliberately trying to mess with people (which is neither cool nor likely), or you do believe what you’re saying.
But if what you believe isn’t backed by sufficient evidence, you’re setting yourself up for problems if you throw those things out authoritatively.
That’s why I believe an essential concept for leaders of tomorrow to pay attention to is “burden of proof.”
The burden of proof is the obligation of a person making an assertion to provide sufficient justification for it.
If I tell you that there is a bologna sandwich at the center of the Sun, powering it, I had better have some evidence to back that up. That’s on me.
But where too many of us get tripped up is actually the next step. If you argue against my bologna sandwich theory, I might say, “Well YOU have no proof that there ISN’T a bologna sandwich powering the sun.”
That just shifted the burden of proof onto you. And that’s neither fair nor logical. Whether intentional or not, it’s a form of intellectual dishonesty.
Burden of proof means that if you make a claim, you are the one required to provide evidence. Nobody needs to provide proof that you’re wrong, if you don’t provide proof that you’re right.
Absence of proof that you’re wrong means nothing in the absence of proof that you’re right.
This logical fallacy of throwing the burden of proof on others is easy to see in high-profile political gossip of late. But violations of burden of proof take place all the time behind closed doors in our companies.
If I say, “Prove to me that you’re not too disorganized to be a manager”—without evidence that you’re disorganized at all—you shouldn’t have to prove me wrong until I have proof of my own. And yet the trouble comes when others hear the exchange and walk away with, “Well, I heard so-and-so might be too disorganized to get promoted...”
And the more authority one has, the harder it is for others to shake the unproven idea.
That’s why the best leaders are careful to clarify the evidence for their assertions anytime they make one.
And when a leader doesn’t have sufficient evidence for something yet, they should say so.
“We don’t have much data yet, but I think this is a smart bet for us to make,” is a perfectly valid thing for a leader to say. Just as, "To get promoted to manager, you'll need to show that you have excellent organizational skills" is perfectly acceptable, if you haven't seen evidence for that yet.
And counter-intuitively, saying, “I have my theories about this, but I don't know enough to say for sure,” can actually breed confidence in a leader.
It’s a mark of intellectual humility to admit you don’t know what you don’t know. Ideally, this should be a motivator for the leader to go and amass evidence for the right way to proceed.
This is not to say that leaders should never make decisions unless they have all the evidence they need about everything. Every organization, if it wants to grow, will need to make moves without knowing all the facts. It’s just that leaders need to be clear-eyed about what’s a bet and what’s not.
And that will help us all to collaborate more effectively.