You Know What I Heard?

As first published in the Business Journal Newspapers

May 2020

If there is one thing that I have learned during the COVID crisis, it is who to avoid. The people I have learned to tune out fall into two groups; the You know what I heard? group, and the I can top that group. Both groups have only one goal; get people excited, worried, or distracted. These groups are in constant battle with the other group; people who focus on facts. The challenge for people who focus on facts is that they are not as exciting to talk to. It is the same with news programs. Some of them just deliver facts, while others just want to keep you watching. If business don’t control the first two groups, there are long-term consequences.

The You know what I heard? group spreads whatever crazy theory they just heard from Facebook, Twitter, or their Great Uncle Chuck. Conversations start with, “You know what I heard? I heard that the Albanians created the virus in a secret lab because they want to steal Montana from the United States!” This group never has any good news to share because good news is boring. Also, psychologists and sociologists have discovered that people who spread bad news are actually viewed by peers as more socially powerful than people who share good news. It is a strange quirk of human behavior that explains why we give so much of our time to doom-sayers.

As soon as the You know what I heard? guy opens his mouth, the I can top that guy has to step in with even worse news; “Oh yeah? Well I read that we are going into another Great Depression that will last until the year 2032!” If sharing bad news gives a person power, then topping that news puts the next guy at the head of the pack.

If leaders don’t pay attention to these behaviors, the potential damage goes beyond people just getting worked up over a Zoom meeting. While disasters can sometimes be a kick in the pants; causing employees to focus and dig in; focus caused by emergencies is short-lived. A cheetah’s twitch muscles allow for lighting fast speed upon take-off, but cheetahs can only maintain that speed for a short distance; which is why the steady galloping gazelle gets away. Long-term dour predictions give employees an excuse to do the minimum needed to get by. A What’s the point? attitude is the biggest productivity killer of all.

Research has discovered that people who can best weather unpredictable situations—and avoid the accompanying long-term stress—all share a unique ability. The ability to determine the likely outcomes to situations on a percentage basis. Instead of letting the reactive part of the brain get all worked up, they use the mathematical part of the brain and ask themselves, “What percent chance does each possible outcome have of coming to fruition?” Once they determine that Outcome X has a 55% chance, Outcome Y has a 30% chance, and all the other outcomes follow, the reasonable person devises plans for each outcome.

However, there is an obstacle when trying to engage the mathematical side of the brain, and it isn’t what you might think. People sometimes avoid this exercise because they say, “You can’t predict with any accuracy the likelihood of any outcome, so what’s the point?” But the reason people avoid this reasoned approach isn’t because it lacks accuracy, it is because it isn’t satisfying. (Besides, the majority of percentage predictions are often quite accurate, because mathematical probabilities are based on data, not emotion.) But no one wants to have coffee with someone who spouts percentage probabilities. But, it is a leader’s responsibility to encourage just that kind of thinking in employees.

In my last column, Leading in a Time of COVID, was about how the Command and Control style of leadership is most effective during times of emergency. Now that the emergency has settled in, and long-term effects will start to show up in teams, leaders need to step in and quell the You know what I heard? and I can top that talk and help employees manage fear and stress by imagining all possible outcomes, and knowing how they will be a part of the solution for each of them.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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