Truth and fiction are in the news a lot lately, most notably in the case of James Frey's bestseller, A Million Little Pieces. The book was first hailed by Oprah Winfrey and others as a compelling memoir about drug abuse and recovery, but when it was discovered that the author had taken, shall we say, liberties with the truth, he was widely condemned for duping Oprah and the more than 1 million people who bought the book. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been criticized for the spin it has put on spying, without warrants, on Americans it considers suspicious. And we're about to be subjected to a long media circus over the trial of Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The jury will have their work cut out for them trying to separate the evidence from the lies.
Why is it that in all walks of life it's so difficult to get to the truth? Do we secretly yearn for a good story more than we do for the straightforward facts? Do we prefer the lies we want to hear from our politicians rather than the truth we'd prefer not to deal with? It seems ironic that in order to get a dose of "reality," Americans turn to a host of television shows purporting to show life as it really is, but come no closer to the average viewer's real life than James Frey's book did.
Thus, it was refreshing to talk to Stanford Professor Robert I. Sutton recently about Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, his latest book (coauthored with fellow Stanford academic Jeffrey Pfeffer) about evidence-based management. Sutton has been studying organizational behavior for many years, and wrote about it for CIO Insight readers for two years. Sutton's work has led him to the belief that managers and leaders can do a better job if they use hard facts rather than half-truths.
The main idea for the book, he said, is "finding, facing and acting on the best evidence that you can." He admits that while this sounds simple, it is rarely done—in part because it is so hard to accomplish in everyday life. "All of us as human beings have trouble getting past our biases and ideologies," he explained, which is why we hold on so long to doing what our gut tells us is right. There's also the problem of "the self-enhancement bias"—which translates into believing you're better than the average manager and, therefore, you can succeed in your plans even if all evidence suggests you will fail. "It's like smoking cigarettes," said Sutton. "I still know people who smoke cigarettes who explain to me why they won't get sick even though everybody else does."
Much as we might hate to admit it, the evidence is right more often than the lies we choose to believe.
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