Preventing the Spread of Conspiracy Theories in Times of Crisis Requires Effective Leadership
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In a recent Entrepreneur article, I discussed some of the reasons we often fall prey to conspiracy theories during moments of crisis, describing how our desire for control, cognitive biases, and narcissism can spur such toxic thinking. The primary focus of that article was one of personal agency, as the onus is largely on us to be mindful of our own susceptibility to conspiracy thinking.
However, because conspiracies often attribute culpability for a crisis or unseen event to those who are in a position of authority, it’s also important to understand the role leaders play in influencing the emergence and spread of conspiracism in the wake of dynamic events. After all, research shows that not only can leaders contribute to employees’ conspiracism, but such beliefs can reduce employee commitment and even lead to increased turnover. Below, I focus on how leaders’ lack of transparency, disingenuous communication, and own paranoia and cynicism, may provide fertile soil for conspiracism to take root and spread within their organization. Although I focus specifically on the interplay of leadership and conspiracism as it relates to organizations, the implications extend to leadership at the societal level as well.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
The problems leaders encounter during periods of uncertainty are, by definition, unstructured and ambiguous. Because the criteria and solutions to such problems are often ill-defined, leaders may frequently find themselves needing to modify existing plans and potentially change course as they encounter new data and information. When navigating such environments, it can be enticing to keep your employees at a distance, fearing that you may be seen as indecisive or unable to handle the situation should you need to change strategy in light of new information. As tempting as this might be, such a lack of transparency during moments of crisis is a mistake, and will only serve to fuel dissidence, rumors, and conspirational thinking among your ranks. Instead, keep employees informed of the process and actively invite their opinions and suggestions when making decisions. As research shows, when leaders exhibit such high levels of transparency during turbulent events, they are likely to be perceived as more trustworthy and effective by those they lead, key elements needed to keep conspiracism at bay.
Cut the bullshit
Reducing the spread of conspiracism during times of crisis also requires leaders to be mindful of how they are communicating with their employees. Despite the colloquial use of the term, the concept of bullshit has been the subject of academic interest. Bullshit goes beyond mere dishonesty, as it involves communication that is not only untruthful but unconnected from truth entirely. That is, unlike lying, which necessitates the liar to know what the truth is, the bullshiter need not know the truth at all. Such style of communication is often prevalent during moments of crisis, as leaders may feel compelled to provide answers to problems for which there are not yet solutions. For example, leaders may attempt to feign control over the situation by conveying a false sense of optimism, misrepresenting the true state of events, or making promises they can’t fulfill. Yet, such behaviors not only convey a lack of respect for employees but, when seen for what it is, can sow distrust and cynicism toward leadership, thereby fueling the flames of conspiracism. Accordingly, opt instead for communication that is honest, candid, and consistent with reality – even if the reality is more uncertainty.
Monkey see, monkey do
Within organizations, employees naturally look to those around them, including their direct superiors, to help them make sense of their environment. This sense-making process can be quite useful, as it can facilitate socialization processes and strengthen the organization’s culture. However, during moments of crisis, it also can serve as a conduit for conspiracism to spread. For example, research suggests that leaders’ own paranoia and cynicism during moments of crisis can influence employees’ conspiratorial thinking, as it can foster a sense of distrust and skepticism toward the organization. Accordingly, it’s important to ensure that, across all levels of the organizational hierarchy, those who are in a position of authority are modeling the appropriate behavior and not undermining your efforts to manage the crisis with their own conspiratorial beliefs.