Conspiracy theories now seem to be commonplace, ranging from the outlandish to the worrying to the politically aligned.
Conspiracy thinking distracts us from addressing the real problems we face and can drive unhelpful or even dangerous behaviours. But understanding it can unlock useful insights into human cognition and help us to guard against unconscious biases and resistance to change.
Fundamentally, humans are hardwired to avoid discomfort. Where information threatens our sense of control, entitlement or security, we get uncomfortable.
We invent conspiracies – secret, often malevolent forces targeting us (or a group with which we identify) – in order to explain away that information. Conspiracy theories help us to reframe the issue as an ‘us-versus-them’ battle for control.
The current popularity of conspiracy thinking makes sense in our current age. Many of us living in wealthy consumer economies will have the unconscious assumption that the earth is ours to use as we will, with no consequences – at least not for us personally.
Understanding conspiracy thinking can unlock useful insights into human cognition and help us to guard against unconscious biases and resistance to change
Environmental collapse, climate change and mass extinctions confront that assumption head-on. Similarly, demands for economic and social justice from Black Lives Matter, Me Too and other social movements threaten the sense of entitlement from those who benefit from the current system.
The result? Climate change is a hoax, social change movements are being funded and manipulated by a shadowy cabal, and so on.
As managers and leaders, we may see this tendency to invent invisible enemies play out in our work. A colleague recently put in place a policy for approvals and due diligence around major transactions – standard fare for any business of substance. But it had led to a confrontation with one individual, who took it as a personal affront. Suspicion and rumour can be rife when a team is facing restructure or other uncertainties.
The trick is not to engage with the conspiracy theory itself, but to recognise that it’s a symptom of a deeper problem. Something, often a real thing, is making people uncomfortable; if you can find out what that something is, you can work with your team to build a more helpful way of addressing the situation.
If it’s a temporary issue, like a team reorganisation, calling out the uncertainty and inviting dialogue may be enough. If it’s a more stubborn concern, such as a long-term shift in business focus, realigning priorities and providing a clear action plan to transition to the new model can give your team back their sense of agency and purpose.
It’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists as crackpots or to be infuriated by their lack of logic. But reframe conspiracies as a way of expressing anxiety about change and you might just have a chance of defusing them.