There are numerous occasions in business and government when what you hear seems unjust, unfair or pure nonsense. It happens in business as often as in government. It's just that because of its very nature, government can't downplay or handle the fallout as easily as business. Since Reagan, Washington has been ruled by an "ideology that says government intervention is always bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is always good." So the lens is never as negatively focused on business as on government. It's hard to imagine that perspective after reaping the failures of the auto industry and the sheer idiocy of America's financial industry, but it remains true.
How should you respond to, well . . . such public nonsense?
A few weeks ago I handed out a critical skill for reading opinion columns that I'd learned from William Safire some time ago. He pointed out that one of the keys to reading any column is that the nuggets of importance are usually halfway down the column. Today, I'd like to suggest another critical skill that I've found exceptionally valuable.
Whenever you're getting stuff that makes no sense--and the person or organization delivering it is at least of average intelligence--recognize that there's also a 95% possibility that you're only getting one piece of the puzzle. In business as in government there's always a backstory: what led up to the main story or plotline.
Take, for example, the Scottish government's release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber to his homeland of Libya. Endlessly, we've heard that this "makes a mockery of the rule of law," and any number of similar statements of outrage. At face value it's unfair, unjust and nonsensical. Why would a government commit such an act? It's great emotionally-packed stuff for the newspapers, CNN, Fox and the rest of the cable.
But consider: In both governmental and business politics we're inevitably faced with trade-offs. Of course governmental officials exactly like business officials will side with the people's perspective--at least publicly. But Libya has wanted a relationship of significance (read, "commercial relationship") with the West, including the States, for years. Furthermore, the Libyan oilfields are loaded with reserves in excess of 44 billion barrels, the largest in Africa. In addition, the Russian oil monopoly, Gazprom, has been angling for major contracts and control of some of the Libyan oilfield. I can assure you that no government official in his right mind would be unwilling to put up with the short-term anger of the public over the Lockerbie incident when the future of the West's petroleum supply is at stake. Anger at the Lockerbie incident would not begin to compare with the public's frustration and anger over a one or two dollar price increase per gallon of gas. Thus, I believe the backstory of the Lockerbie incident is about trade-offs.
In a video conference with Georgetown students and faculty this past January, President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, put it this way to his listeners: "Terrorism is a dwarf, not a giant." In effect, he's saying the Lockerbie terrorist is small potatoes.
Consider also that in business as in politics, everything is negotiable. Pragmatism rules over idealism. That, of course, is the game no intelligent leader dare talk about in spite of it being reality. It's important to recognize that fact, manage our emotions and work for the ideals that we can realistically achieve.
To summarize, I've put together a number of inferences from significant fact-based data as well as my knowledge of the relevant policy of the U.K. and the States and drawn the conclusion that the Scots' handling of the terrorist was based on a set of major international trade-offs. I've drawn a logical backstory without ultimate proof that I'm correct.
What is true, however, is that within the complexities of a highly interlocked world, reality often forces us to do the least wrong rather than the most right.
Business regularly finds itself in the same predicament. How much can managers reveal of a complicated situation? You've got organizational morale to deal with, but you've also go the intelligence gathering capabilities of your competition who would be very happy to see you fail. So what execs and sometimes your manager can tell you, will very often have an invisible backstory.
Here's the rule: When what you're getting is bullshit, figure out the backstory before you lose your cool. This is not a recipe for cynicism, but a formula for growth. It was Jesus who commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly and said that, "The children of this world are wiser than the children of light."