Friday, August 21, 2015

False Memories Generate Persuasive Truths

Over two years ago, the folks over at the athenahealth kindly invited me to submit columns to their Health Leadership Forum, and I have done so on an occasional basis since them. As I recently reviewed the columns, I realized that my own thoughts on the topics of leadership and coaching have evolved a bit, and I thought my readers over here at Not Running A Hospital might enjoy witnessing the transition. So for several days, I will be reprinting the posts from the Forum over here. Comments are welcome at the original site and here. Today's reprint, with an added footnote and embedded links, is from a post dated February 5, 2015, "False Memories Generate Persuasive Truths."

There has been much written lately about the tendency of people to develop false memories about events they have witnessed or experienced. I’m not talking about folks who intentionally mislead themselves or others about a given series of actions or events—perhaps, say, to alleviate guilt or horror. I’m talking about people who truly, deeply believe that they saw something occur as they now remember it. Their brains are incapable of understanding that their views of the events are flawed.

This phenomenon might be one of the highest forms of cognitive errors, and it raises serious questions for those of us in leadership roles who like to be, in Donald Schön’s words, reflective practitioners. Don’s concept was elegant. Over the years, we develop a framework based on our experiences and observations that guides our actions and choices today.

A reflective practitioner is one who works within that framework but who is constantly testing it based on new information. As we learn from recent events, we reconfigure our world view and adapt our leadership methods to our newly revised conception. We then attempt to persuade people in our organizations and those outside that the path we’ve chosen is one they should join.

But if our memories might be flawed, how do we know that the lessons we draw from them are likely to be accurate, much less helpful? Should we try to build in a method of self-correction to help us compensate for our cognitive weaknesses? After all, our organizations and our people are counting on us to be analytical, thoughtful, and precise. If the memories are flawed, won’t our conclusions also be?

We could answer this by saying to ourselves, “Hey, I do the best I can. If I miss something important because I didn’t realize that I was mis-remembering, I’ll make mid-course corrections later. Meanwhile, I’ll present the facts and figures and my impeccable logic, and the power of that logic will cause people to follow my lead.”

That’s not a bad answer, but there is a better one. I recently had a chance to attend a marvelous literature festival in Jaipur, India.

Many of the best authors in the world presented there, and one session was called “The Art of the Memoir.” Among the panelists were Anchee Min (born in China and now in the U.S.); South Africa’s Mark Gevisser; the U.K.’s Brigid Keenan; and Joanna Rakoff from the U.S.

All of these authors had written memoirs, i.e., books about a portion of their own lives. The conversation turned to the question of how to assure that a memoir was accurate. It quickly became clear that narrative was more important than accuracy. Rakoff put it this way: “A memoir is not what happened. It’s what I wrote about what happened.” She did not mean that she was intentionally clouding the factual history surrounding events. She meant that she had to make sense of what had happened and be able to transcribe it in a way that was useful, compelling, and entertaining for herself and her readers. In short, she had to be persuasive.

Gevisser went further along these lines: “The memory only happened once I found the language for it.” Keenan suggested that finding the language is an iterative process. Even for someone who has trained herself to keep daily notes, “The transformation of a journal to memoir takes about eight drafts.”

What possible lesson can we draw from these authors? To me, they displayed an acceptance of the likelihood of cognitive errors in their remembrance of events. Indeed, they considered the existence of a gap between memory and fact to be an asset. Instead of saying, “Hey, I do the best I can,” they endorse and cherish the existence of the gap. Their focus is on creating a narrative that can teach a lesson or motivate readers.

There is a leadership parallel here. The great leaders are those who offer a persuasive narrative to their potential followers. The likelihood of building a coalition in support of a given direction is directly proportional to the power of that narrative. How is that narrative most likely to be persuasive?

My friend and colleague James Sebenius, at Harvard Business School, recently reminded me of important lessons related to persuasion. Centuries ago, Aristotle suggested that there are three aspects of persuasion—logos, ethos, and pathos. The tendency of many leaders today is to rely on logos (logic, reason, and evidence) to motivate their followers.

Facts certainly have their place, but the other parts of Aristotle’s equation are equally powerful. Both pathos (connecting emotionally) and ethos (establishing your good character) are best transmitted by stories. Vivid and specific language complement logic and evidence. Stories that reflect the story-teller’s principles and vulnerability likewise add persuasive appeal.

The authors in Jaipur were, in essence, telling us to channel Aristotle. Understand that your memories are likely to be flawed, but confidently use the memories you have. Take the time to draw from them elements of a persuasive appeal. As the political organizer Marshall Ganz (and the ancient Jewish philosopher Hillel) would have put it: First share the story of your self. Next, draw connections with your listeners and help them understand that your story is about “us,” the organization and its purpose. Finally, create a sense of urgency and communicate that this a story about “now,” with an imperative for action today.*

In this manner, false memories will generate persuasive truths.
* “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot Chapter 1:14)


gene lindsey said...

Paul, The last two weeks of postings are a real gift to all of us. I would by the book if these were put together as essays on leadership. You have woven the ideas together into a wonderful tapestry and the links are rich source for continued exploration. Thank you for this series! Gene Lindsey

Carole said...

This post is very interesting and gives me a lot to think about , and question.
Isn't this the same or same difference as telling a person that their feelings are wrong?
Aren't my memories my memories? Who decides there false?