I recently came across the work of economist Timur Kuran, whose book ‘Private Truths, Public Lies’ centres around the idea of preference falsification and it’s impact both social & political.

Preference falsification, put simply, is the act of mis-representing your real feelings under the perceived social pressures of a situation (e.g. You are sitting at a table of vegan colleagues, who are talking about the barbarism of industrial farming, but you grew up on a cattle farm and know that some of the views being shared are being slightly misrepresented). Preference falsification is when you feel pressure to join the party line and agree with what is being said, for fear of social exclusion or the backlash from sharing your points of view.

Preference-falsification

The impact of preference falsification (or so Kuran’s thesis goes) is whilst working in a perceived status-quo where everyone feels certain that there is a consensus point of view, there is a disruptive under current of disenfranchisement which could leave structures (social, political or otherwise) vulnerable to collapse. Especially when there is little opportunity for constructive discourse because there is an established order that everyone has to ‘fall in line’ with.

I got to thinking about how communication in business is impacted by this phenomenon. As individuals (whether owners, shareholders, middle managers, senior staff or entry level colleagues) we all have our own opinions, motivations & priorities but we are thrust into a situation where there is an established order, a framework to work within and a set of pre-existing templates for communications, so we have to bend ourselves into the shape that the organisation would like us to inhabit.

This guides communication at every level, whether it is a CEO who knows they want to sell & step out of the business saying “We are building a culture here, I want to continue to build a business that I want to work for, for the next 30 years”, whilst courting potential buyers… or a senior staff member at an appraisal saying “I am really invested, I see the opportunity to grow and develop here. I love the role”, meanwhile moaning to their colleagues about the business and it’s lack of investment in L&D.

Preference falsification is everywhere and can create a stratified, politicky culture of information asymmetries, where colleagues start to think that the route to career progression is managing the dissemination of information and including or excluding people based on what they can offer them in return.

This means that as a manager you have to be adept at monitoring the sub-text, the non-direct language and be understanding of the potentially disruptive impact that a ground-swell of these silent voices can have. Whether that is an increasing churn-rate, a decrease in productivity, lower collaboration levels or even a pseudo-coup.

Now, I completely understand that people will think, “yeah, but what is the alternative… you have to have some information asymmetry for a business to work”, and I understand that point of view. However, I have heard some stories of businesses having a culture of radical honesty, where communications go out to the whole business saying “We are struggling with cash flow this month, and as such the directors aren’t getting paid. To ensure that the business can continue to run, we need to all try to support the new business pipeline to guarantee job security and ensure our small organisation continues to thrive”, which regardless of whether you think that is a suitable conversation for the whole business to hear, is a refreshingly honest line of communication that brings everyone closer to the commercial success/failure of the business, and as such, should grow the sense of ownership, efficacy and community.

I am a big fan of the idea of having important conversations about difficult topics. Especially in a complex environment like a diverse workplace, where you need individuals to bring drive, motivation and experience to the table, whilst leaving at least part of their ego to one side to get the best from the team.

What do you think, is it a nonsense to think that radical honesty could work in the modern workplace? or is an culture of preference falsification the thing that makes businesses tick, as otherwise we would descend into a discussion about the whims of every individual?

I like the idea of regular, open, honest and transparent communication from the top down and the bottom up. I think it benefits everyone to hear people’s genuine feelings.