Are we post-truth? Protecting HR from 'alternative facts'

Kellyanne Conway’s gaffe on Sunday that patently incorrect statements by Donald Trump’s press secretary were ‘alternative facts’ has received a level of derision rare by any standards. The mickey-takes have rolled in from far and wide, with sources as diverse as Deutsche Bahn and (alternative) rocker Courtney Love offering their #AlternativeFacts. It was an incredible phrase to coin, even if what Conway really meant was alternative evidence.

It was also clearly a phrase that western culture, just like the interviewing journalist Chuck Todd, was primed to pick up on. His incredulous response sums up the indignation felt by many: ‘Wait a minute. Alternative facts? ... Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true ... They’re falsehoods.’

Growing tired of blatant political spin, we have probably been primed over a period of years. But the US election campaign seemed to take us to new heights of a ‘post-truth’ era, in which emotional appeals carry more weight than argument and inconvenient evidence can be repeatedly batted away by simple statements to the contrary.

But I also suspect an aspect of the furore is that, as Frances G Wickes put it, ‘Often we hate in others the thing which we fear in ourselves; or we hate because the other person raises to our consciousness some fault or inadequacy which we would prefer to have remain unconscious’[1]. Be honest – how much do you cherry-pick your ‘facts’ to form an opinion or justify your actions?

The fact is that the temptation is hard to resist. Daniel Kahneman’s celebrated book[2] shows how we make decisions through mental shortcuts or heuristics, meaning that we rely on flimsy associations more than rational thought. We are also prone to confirmation bias, interpreting information through the distorting prism of opinions we’ve already formed.

This danger is very present in the major decisions that organisations make about people management. So much of organisational development is put down to leadership and getting people to buy in to your vision and plans. But the basis on which you develop those plans matters hugely. Not all evidence is equal.

For example, simply replicating ‘leading practice’ or industry norms – be they in performance management, recruitment or whatever – may be appealing but could be hugely misguided. It may not translate to your context and moreover, it may be completely incidental to what makes other organisations successful. Far better to run a pilot and look at the impact of an intervention in the cold light of day before deciding whether to roll it out. Or review the published studies that are already available.

As we argue in our positioning paper, this standard of evidence-based practice is one to which we should aim in HR. It requires certain things, like an appreciation of study design and access to published research, but these are far from insurmountable barriers, especially if practitioners can develop good links with academics. A greater challenge is being bold enough to hold judgement and make decisions according to what the evidence tells you, rather than the received wisdom or latest trends.

Elsewhere this week in America, in the midst of her rasping speech as part of the women’s march, senator Elizabeth Warren pronounced, ‘Now I’m going to say something that’s really controversial in some places in Washington. We believe in science.’ The critique could be made outside the US too, as illustrated by Michael Gove’s comment last year that we have all ‘have had enough of experts’ – the suggestion that Brits should vote for Brexit with their hearts not their heads.

I hope we remember the ‘alternative facts’ gaffe far into the future, not just as a symbol of a crazy political era, but as a constant reminder that – in organisational decisions as well as policy – scientific expertise must be valued and evidence should be weighed up carefully. It is not okay to cherry pick ‘facts’ according to what suits us and we need to check ourselves against this.

[1] Frances G Wickes (1927) The Inner World of Childhood: A Study in Analytical Psychology

[2] Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow

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