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Leading through misinformation, disinformation, and information overload

The COVID-19 challenge creates leadership opportunities daily. Navigating misinformation, disinformation, and information overload takes work.

How effective you are as a leader will oftentimes depend on how effective you are as a communicator. At no time has this been more true or important than during the current COVID-19 challenge.

As we wrote in part three of our upcoming book Joint Force Leadership: How SEALs and Fighter Pilots Lead to Success, communication is one of the three essential linchpins of effective leadership. The challenge today stems from the fact that there is a wide array of conflicting information to sift through. Your job is to lead this effort.

Your people are bombarded by and exposed to all of this, and many are reacting in ways counterproductive to your business, their mental health, and overall well-being. How then, can we bridge this communication gap and keep our people informed yet balanced? This challenge is exacerbated by the wide proliferation of misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation in my view starts from decidedly well intentioned sources that angle the truth toward a conclusion not completely supported by the facts, and thus miss the mark. Taken on its face, it can do little harm if viewed with a healthy skepticism, but when believed wholeheartedly, internalized, and shared across social media and personal platforms, it can cause trouble.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is far more sinister. It is generated with the intent to misdirect, mislead or induce panic or anxiety in our people, and it is everywhere. State actors and non-state actors alike are spending incredible amounts of time and energy to manufacture and proliferate disinformation to undermine our way of life and sow the seeds of discontent in our society.

As leaders it is our job to combat misinformation and disinformation alike. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Use reliable sources for information, and ensure that the source that looks official actually is.
  2. Limit the amount of time spent each day looking at this information. This helps bring balance to your life.
  3. Verify critical information through a variety of reliable sources. Don’t anchor on a single source.
  4. Be careful not to discount everything your people say. If you sound dismissive it will turn people off.
  5. Look calm and be calm in the face of competing information. The only thing you can control is your reaction.
  6. Understand that you have never had perfect information, and never will. Get over it.
  7. Remind people that we make rational decisions all the time with imperfect information. The key is to stay rational.

Let your people know that is perfectly normal to be concerned, and that the only thing that they control is their response to whatever information they receive. If you face the good, the bad, and the ugly head on it will let your people know that you are in touch with the situation, and that your steady hand will help the ship navigate these uncharted and at times murky waters.

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