Many recognize one of my favorite Bible verses from a line in Mel Gibson’s movie production,The Passion of the Christ, when Pontius Pilate asks “What is Truth?” John 18:38
Pontius Pilate is questioning Jesus of Nazareth when Jesus says he has come to testify to the truth…to which Pilate replies, “What is truth?” Instead of waiting for Jesus to answer, Pilate goes to address the crowd outside which confirms Jesus’ fate of crucifixion.
The Biblical account of Pilate’s question “What is truth?” has been the subject of much philosophical, Biblical, and historical study and writing. Was Pilate asking in jest? Mocking Jesus’ testimony? Was it a much deeper rhetorical comment on how hard it is to grasp and work with actual truth? Often the truth is not what we use to guide our actions, our lives, or our business.
I believe Pilate’s question was his commentary on both the difficulty of ascertaining truth and how we often create our own truth by doing what we want in spite of facts before us. Pilate knew he only had to take a few steps outside to hear the judgment of the mob; showing how difficult it can be to answer the question, “what is truth?”
The question “what is truth?” has broad-reaching applications to our everyday lives.
We struggle with gathering solid facts from news reports, accounts from other people, and advertisements. Making decisions and having confidence in our actions is difficult when we question whether our reasoning is based upon fact or fiction.
Like Pontius Pilate we are subject to the court of public opinion. The influence of others around us may lead us to actions based on something other than the truth. People don’t always intend to deceive us but their opinion is just that: their opinion. Often an expression for a preferred outcome.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with diverse opinions. On the contrary, I believe sharing of varied opinions is good; healthy for our understanding between people and improved decision making.
Problems arise when we can’t discern between what is fact and what is opinion. When we become confused over what’s most important or true. And unfortunately, people present their opinions as facts quite freely.
Pilate had to interpret many points from those around him: that the people would riot if he did not act, his authority would be threatened by Jesus, Rome would remove him from office if he allowed Christ to live. The truth had little to do with how Pontius Pilate finally acted. Pilate knew he was not dealing with facts when he said to the chief priests, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”
Here’s a pivotal point in the history of events: Pilate didn’t feel confident in the case being presented, but he acted on the opinions and preferences of the accusers anyway.
In the same way, I don’t want your business or my business to go the way of Pontius Pilate and the accusers.
Is it an understatement to say that you will run a better business by acting on accurate information and facts? Yes, it is an understatement.
Have you found yourself with an uneasy feeling over a decision because you were not sure of the facts? In practice I often feel I am dealing with information that is incomplete or less than the whole truth. It’s so common in business to feel the pressure of others working to persuade you to act where you question the logic or whether outcomes will be desirable.
It is absolutely critical that business leaders are adept at recognizing facts versus opinions and properly use both when choosing how to act.
The main point here is to see the facts clearly in contrast with opinionated information. It’s not that opinions are not informative or valuable, but you need to be confident in knowing which information is fact and which is opinion or fiction.
Here are three tips on confirming facts versus opinions:
1. Look in the Mirror.
We all have our own opinions and bias that can lead us to see what we want to see in any situation. You have to want to know the truth more than you want to confirm what you already believe. This is referred to as “confirmation bias.”
Reporting only the solid facts and data that support your position is a common application of confirmation bias. I can receive a report from my staff that our product model A has a perfect 0 defect warranty claim record which omits that I have sold a quantity of only 1 model A unit. Like Pontius Pilate, I may wonder if I’m dealing with the truth, but choose to ignore concerns over manufacturing. While the statement may be true, it leaves out important details; implying an inaccurate conclusion. In reality there weren’t any defects because there weren’t any sales. Be honest with yourself in looking for the whole story and you will be better informed.
You must really want to know the truth in order to find it, or you will likely fall prey to your own wishful thinking and wind up with a faulty premise for decision making.
2. In God We Trust. Everyone Else Brings Data.
The easiest and fastest way to identify factual data is to see it for yourself. If someone presents information that you will be using to inform how to act, make a habit of asking to see the underlying data, including the source of the data.
There’s magic in developing a habit of looking at supporting data for decisions. You can recognize robust information in contrast with fragile or weak source material. Practice asking yourself whether information is collected in a scientific or objective fashion. Does the information prioritize accuracy? Or is it closer to an off-the-cuff opinion that furthers a specific agenda favored by the messenger?
As you make reviewing data a habit, your staff will know you expect them to use accurate data in their decision making and recommendations. You add a layer of accountability as you ask to see their supporting data.
3. Consider the Source.
Because all information sources are not of equal quality, it’s helpful to be familiar with exactly where data comes from. Know who authored the data if it’s a person, what measured the data if it’s a machine, or the reputation of an organization if it’s a published analysis.
As you exercise the discipline of checking data and sources, you’ll begin to identify those that are objective and reliable over time. You’ll also learn to recognize those people and sources that have consistent bias or error.
Some sources are intrinsically biased, such as a political pundit, while others may simply be lower quality, like an employee lacking skills or tools to properly research and analyze a given problem. Either will provide less accurate data that isn’t fully factual . If you’re going to carry the cross of your decisions, it’s important to know who or what is supporting those decisions. Challenge yourself to learn the quality of your data sources and work to lean on the most reliable and accurate sources you can find.
Again,there is nothing intrinsically wrong with opinions and opinions can be helpful in decision making. Let’s close by marrying our fact-based data collection to a world full of opinions. This will allow opinions to work to our benefit instead of letting them confuse us.
Merriam-Webster defines truth as “the body of real things, events, and facts: actuality.”
Why would we want to muddy the water with a bunch of opinions? Why not just collect and deal with only the facts?
Because we are all God’s creation of unique individuals, if you try to remove the humanity from your decision making, you will live to regret it.
Pontius Pilate’s question “what is truth?” speaks to the fact that we must tend to the needs of the people in our decision making. It’s the hardest part of leading an organization of any kind. Pilate could feel he was living a moment where facts were being trampled under-foot by the opinions and desires of the crowd in the streets. You are likely to feel pressure from other opinions in the course of running a business; it happens all the time.
It is important to listen to the opinions of those around you if you are going to lead well. Armed with solid facts and analysis, you can be a good listener for anyone’s opinion. “I’m all ears” is one of my standard lines for my staff and clients. I want to know what they think. I want to know why they think it. I want to know if they are attuned to the facts and have good information to contribute. I also want to know if they are off base but open to learning new information that could help them perform better.
When you make a discipline of requiring really good information from your team, you help them base their own opinions on a more solid foundation.
Other people’s opinions usually do influence my perspective even if I don’t agree with them. Having a sense of empathy for fellow man informs decisions in such a way as to improve both the decision and your own understanding. Deeper understanding and respect for other points of view, even where they might not be seeing the facts clearly, helps your chosen actions resonate with a broader population. You will be more persuasive in helping others follow your lead based upon the facts and truth by respecting their differing opinions.
What is truth? It’s complicated, but based upon reality and important to running a successful business. As you run your business, let these 3 steps lead you to the truth:
- Become a disciplined seeker of facts and good information.
- Listen sincerely to other’s opinions and let them make a positive influence where possible.
- Make your decisions based upon what you know to be the truth.