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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 19, 2020


When faced with unexpected negative outcomes, people tend to become more paranoid and attracted to conspiracy theories. This negatively impacts their ability to make sound, rational decisions. This week we look at five ways leaders can help overcome our tendency towards paranoia when faced with uncertainty.



Hello and welcome to episode 82 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at five ways leaders can help overcome our tendency towards paranoia when faced with uncertainty.

A firm I worked for was going through an acquisition. As part of the company being acquired, that meant moving to some beautiful new offices on a high floor overlooking gardens. We had only just moved in when there was the first of many morning teas to celebrate birthdays in the office. As we made our way into the open kitchen area I could not believe the amount of food. There wasn’t just the traditional birthday cake, but also sushi, sandwiches, spring rolls and pastries filling the large table. Just before the speech began, I heard a low voice next to me say “Hey - you’re one of the new guys, yeah? So here’s the deal - make sure you take as much food as you can - maybe for lunch or to take home. Otherwise if there’s food left over the management will cut back on how much they order next time”. Sure enough, once we finished singing happy birthday, people were making their way back to their desks with loaded plates and containers full of food - more than enough to cover their lunch if not another meal on top of that. To me it looked like a somewhat overly generous way to celebrate staff and bring people together. But for the paranoid whisperer, the birthday celebrations had become just another way that the leaders were scheming to take something away from the workers. The acquisition provided fertile ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories and paranoia.

How prevalent is paranoia? One study showed 20% of people believe that someone was against them at some time during the last year. 8% of the population believe others are actively out to harm them.

In a work context, I’ve lost count of how many times people have said “the management” or some other elusive group were out to get them. There have been accusations of sabotage, stealing clients, or other teams intentionally making things hard out of spite. All of this resulted in cultures driven by blame, fear and even revenge.

Research demonstrates that paranoia is a predictable response to uncertainty and unexpected change. As human beings we try to make sense of negative and unexpected events, and often that involves finding someone to blame. Blaming others helps us to explain and make sense of events, even if the conspiracy theory we put together seems a little strange to others.

In one study researchers measured people’s levels of paranoia and then had them play a card game where the chances of winning were manipulated during the game. Those with greater levels of paranoia tended not to learn from the outcomes in the game, expecting even higher levels of volatility than was present. High levels of paranoia decreased effectiveness. They made decisions and choices that weren’t based on the experience of playing the game, but rather based on their perceptions of the person leading the game. As the experimenters increased the level of uncertainty, even the initially low paranoia participants started acting like those with high paranoia. Their learning also decreased and they became far less effective. When uncertainty was high decisions were based far more on their expectations than on real-time experience.

Now I can guess what you’re thinking - when bad things are happening to you, surely it’s natural to feel paranoid. But in an earlier study, researchers found that even when just observing a similar game people were inclined to become paranoid towards the person running the game as the uncertainty increased. You don’t have to be on the receiving end of the negative outcome to become paranoid.

As the the author of Catch-22 Joseph Heller said, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” However, we often see ourselves as being in the spotlight - as if we are the main actor in a performance revolving around us. It’s easy to then think that if something unexpectedly bad happens, that someone around us is pulling the strings. We can become hyper-attuned to others as a source of risk, particularly if we don’t know them well. But if you have to choose between conspiracy and a misunderstanding, go with the misunderstanding every time. People aren’t very good at conspiracies.

So what can we do about all of this? As a leader when the unexpected happens:

  1. Create meaning even if you can’t explain everything. Part of your role as leader is as meaning-maker. What do these events mean for the team and for individuals?
  2. Find the predictable. Grab a hold of what you can control, and encourage your team to do the same. This helps to increase the level of certainty within your team.
  3. Talk about the risk of paranoia and conspiracy theories. You might even share this research so people can manage the risk of conspiracy theories and pull themselves up when they see themselves falling into that trap.
  4. Challenge interpretations of negative intent. Help people to steer away from assuming others are out to get them, and explore other potential reasons that might be driving their behaviour.
  5. Connect people. It’s much harder to think those you personally know well are conspirators against you. Help your team to understand their world and the pressures they are facing, then identify ways you can support each other.

Paranoia is a natural response to uncertain times, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it. I hope these ideas will help you to steer your team through challenging times, bringing people together rather than driving them apart.

As always I’ve provided details of the research used in this episode in the show notes. And just before you continue on with your day, why not make sure you’ve hit the subscribe button and provided a rating for the podcast. That will help you and others to find future episodes. Have a great week.



Erin J Reed, Stefan Uddenberg, Praveen Suthaharan, Christoph D Mathys, Jane R Taylor, Stephanie Mary Groman, Philip R Corlett. Paranoia as a deficit in non-social belief updating. eLife, 2020; 9 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.56345

Raihani, N.J., Bell, V. Paranoia and the social representation of others: a large-scale game theory approach. Sci Rep 7, 4544 (2017).