Organizational Change
Is Employee Critical-Thinking Training the Next ESG Frontier?

Can businesses do anything to mitigate their employees’ vulnerability to fake news? And should they? Corporate schooling might be an uncomfortable idea, but it could be essential to the future of US capitalism and democracy.

When the United States was three years old, Thomas Jefferson proposed government-provided education as a way to protect democracy from tyranny. Now that the country is approaching its 250th year, we need business-provided education for the same reason. Corporate schooling might be as uncomfortable an idea as government education was in Jefferson’s time, but it could be essential to the future of the US' economy and democracy.

Tens of millions of adults in the US have been manipulated into believing preposterous and disproven stories, with tragic results. We've witnessed people expose each other to a deadly virus to protest a proven safety behavior — wearing a cloth mask — that is low-burden, inexpensive and has no substantive downsides. Thousands of our citizens have given up their lives, and the lives of loved ones, to oppose the very practice that could have saved them. And it’s not only those on the political right who fall victim to fake news. For example, an untold number of left-leaning individuals were enraged that Lancaster, Pennsylvania, ran a Jewish family out of town for not celebrating Christmas, something that never happened. Clearly, many people in the US suffer from impaired thinking.

Most of these individuals with impaired thinking spend their days in workplaces, whether physically or virtually. They interpret quarterly sales reports. They interview job prospects. Their choice of sales strategy and of new hires likely undermines the fortunes and darkens the fate of business. The Capitol insurrection in January established that the inability to distinguish truth from fiction is a societal catastrophe. It’s also, however, a potential business catastrophe.

Can businesses do anything to mitigate their employees’ vulnerability to fake news? Should they? We think the answer to both questions is yes. Over the last 50 years, the responsibilities placed on companies has grown to include environmental stewardship, supply-chain human rights and racial justice. Citizen critical thinking appears to be the next ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) addition.

One proven contributor to the fake-beliefs epidemic is lack of formal education. School attendance is known to boost critical-thinking skills — the ability to reason, evaluate evidence and comprehend complex ideas. Critical thinking, in turn, has been shown to reduce vulnerability to mistruths. Universal higher education would likely improve our collective cognitive troubles dramatically; but it’s too expensive for many, doesn’t help today’s adult population and would take decades before it produced meaningful results. Fortunately, there’s another path.

Research suggests that relatively straightforward critical-thinking training lasting hours, not years, is effective. There is even evidence that a one-time 15-minute carefully crafted game inoculates players against fake news. This isn’t to say that workplace critical-thinking training is plug and play. Indeed, some cognitive biases that undermine critical thinking are notoriously difficult to overcome. Yet, these challenges are not unlike those encountered by existing workplace training, especially when they were first instituted. Provided they design critical-thinking training in accordance with the evidence of what works, there’s little doubt that employers can offer their workers cost-effective protection against fake news. The next question, then, is: Should they? Following are three key reasons the answer to this question is also yes.

  1. Employers might be the only ones that can increase adult resiliency to fake news. Few people would self-select as poor critical thinkers and people don’t voluntarily sign up for training they don’t think they need. Thus, employers are likely the only societal actors who can enroll large numbers of adults in critical-thinking training. They already require safety and other trainings.

  2. Business would benefit from it. Workforces with high levels of critical thinking have many potential advantages:

    • Higher employee performance. Employers have long known that a scarcity of critical thinking across new hires undermines their success. However, workplace critical-thinking training is still rare outside of leadership programs. Businesses that train their full workforces in critical thinking will, in all likelihood, boost employee — and thus, company — performance.

    • Higher employee wellbeing. Consumption of fake news induces fear, rage and otherwise compromises mental health — and, thus, productivity. The wellness case for employee cognitive development is likely as strong as it is for smoking cessation, physical fitness or financial literacy.

    • Lower brand risk. Social media has circulated false stories of parasite-infested Coca-Cola beverages, murderous Xbox consoles and Starbucks discounts for undocumented residents. Training would minimize how many employees fall for hostile fabrications about their employer.

  3. Democracy might depend on it. If the ransacking of Congress by an armed mob isn’t sufficient proof that misinformed citizens are a threat to democracy, the long-time warnings from the FBI and academics should be.

Workplace critical-thinking training that counters the pernicious impact of fake news might be an investment employers can’t afford not to make. Workplaces and countries infected by dangerous delusions are unhealthy and unstable. America needs to do everything it can on every front, including the business front, to free victims of fake news from their private nightmares, to rescue our democracy from its precarious perch, and to make our market economy resilient in an uncertain future.

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