The phrase “fake news” is one we hear a great deal these days. As you know, these words usually refer to false reports in broadcast or print media. I’m not concerned about you on this score. I’m sure you’re wise enough to distinguish the true from the false when it comes to news of the world. No, my concern is another kind of “fake news” leaders are faced with as they lead.
I’ve recently watched some disastrous decision-making by leaders I care about. These horrible decisions were made by otherwise good people because they believed a type of fake news. Let’s just call it what it is: gossip. Someone had whispered in their ear. Someone they trusted had insinuated. Someone had said that they “might have heard” that something was true of another person. A narrative formed. Conclusions were made. Actions were taken.
None of it was true. In one case, the conclusions drawn were so far removed from the truth that a lawsuit resulted. In another, good people were wrongly fired and other good people then left the firm because they did not want to work in a place that treated people that way. In every case, gossip led to distortions of truth and distortions of truth led to destructive action.
What’s the conclusion? Leaders have to weigh carefully what they hear, what they believe, and what evidence they act upon. Apart from this standard, a leader becomes a pawn of gossip—which means he or she becomes a pawn of the lowest part of human nature.
Here is some help. First, always ask yourself what you know firsthand. In other words, what do you know apart from the gossip? What are the facts? If everything that has ever passed between you and Bob, the nightshift foreman, is honorable, kind, productive, and good for the firm, then hold on to that—start there—as you process the negative you are hearing about Bob. Consider for a moment the people out there in the world who believe false things about you. Remember how much you wish they would recall only what passed between you and them and not what the gossips added to the story. Give Bob the same benefit. Be slow about gossip. Lean to the facts you know from experience. Process carefully, compassionately.
Second, my mother used to tell me to consider the source. We will always have with us the gossips, the whisperers, the small souls making themselves big by having the “inside scoop.” Some of these folks are on your board. Some are amongst your leadership team. Some of them are your friends. I mean no insult. We are all flawed. We simply need to know that gossip is the Achilles heel of many folks in our lives. Don’t blame. Just consider the source before you draw conclusions.
Third, change your culture. It is a simple thing for you to say to your team, “Hey, we are about to draw some conclusions that are very close to being based on nothing but gossip. We don’t want to be that kind of team. Let’s get some facts together and then regroup.” You see, this kind of coaching statement helps to reset your leadership culture in this matter of gossip.
Here’s the conclusion: Our media age packages every report as absolutely-true-breaking-news-we-know-it-for-sure fact. It ain’t so. Nor is it so that everything you are hearing about people is true. Let’s draw on some ancient wisdom. Let’s treat others as we would want to be treated. Remember your experience. Consider the source. Change the culture. In short, lead well, gossip free.