On December 21, 1954, dozens of individuals, headed by Dorothy Martin, were sitting in a room, awaiting the apocalypse as promised by the Clarion alien civilization. They were members of a Doomsday cult, which predicted the end of the world at midnight that day. Hours after midnight, nothing catastrophic had happened. Strangely enough, after the prophesy failed to materialize, the cult group members became even more convinced of the cults’ truth. The psychologists labeled this irrational belief cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a widespread phenomenon, where decision makers and leaders cling to deeply held doomsday beliefs, even in the face of massive contrarian evidence. One example is the population bomb: A widely held scientific belief that started in the sixties which predicted that overpopulation would make the earth uninhabitable somewhere around the year 2000. In hindsight, this idea was neat, plausible and spectacularly wrong: Mankind is still here, with more people than imagined, surrounded by more abundance than ever.
Doomsday thinking is not limited to the venerable halls of science. For example, in business, we have seen massive panic and frantic action about Y2K: On January 1, 2000, the calendar change would lead to software disasters and bring many vital systems in the world to its knees. This fear was a dud as well: Apart from massive celebrations, nothing big happened that night. It was highly lucrative for the IT industry though. There is always a group which benefits from excessive fear mongering to make profits of doom.
We can look back and laugh at the silliness of the past, but doomsday thinking may play a prominent part in your business as well. If you honestly want to know if you’re guilty of doomsday thinking as a guiding business principle, ask yourself what disaster stories you tell your clients to move them to take action. Then stop this destructive habit and focus on having an honest conversation about risks and rewards instead. Doomsday language undermines your credibility as a leader and, if used as a basis for doing business, erodes trust and will set you up for failure in the long run.
Doomsday beliefs—especially the ones using the fig leaf of scientific truth—have, historically speaking, consistently been wrong and therefore need to be viewed with the greatest level of skepticism. It’s best to adhere to the first rule of thoughtful leadership: When prophets of doom predict the end of the world, they probably want to sell you something….
Photo Credit: iStockphoto/RomoloTavani