How often have you followed up with an employee about an assignment or project only to find out that he or she completed it differently from the way you’d expected?

You were sure you had explained the task just so, and your employee seemed to understand. However, somewhere between your explanation and the completed task, the information became garbled. Or maybe, when your employee went to do the task, he or she thought they were doing what you asked, without realizing they were remembering the instructions incorrectly.

This example of misinformation isn’t just limited to the office – recently, the children’s books series “The Berenstain Bears” was in the news because thousands of people remembered the name being spelled with an “e”, instead of an “a”.

So what’s going on here, and why should you be aware as a small business owner?

This phenomenon has been named the Mandela Effect, and is used to describe when people remember important events falsely. How did it get its name? Apparently, a substantial population thinks that Nelson Mandela passed away in prison in the 1970s, a fact that is patently untrue; the first black president of South Africa actually died in 2013, surrounded by his family.

In the office, this behavior can lead to business practices you haven’t sanctioned, deadlines that pass by because workers remembered the dates wrong, or deliverables that don’t adhere to specifications.

So what gives? Explanations for the Mandela Effect range from the otherworldly (there’s a parallel universe!) to the totally mundane (sometimes we just file things incorrectly in our brains).

How to Avert Office-Wide Mandela Effects

The most important way to avoid Mandela Effect-level confusion at your business is to make sure that everyone is on the same page as often as possible. Here’s how to do that:

1. Listen

Our busy minds think they know everything. Naturally, we finish other people’s sentences in our heads with what we think they’re going to say—and sometimes, we miss out on the information they actually articulate. We’re so eager to chime in with our plan that we don’t always hear what colleagues and bosses are contributing or assigning. This habit can lead to the Mandela Effect taking hold at the office.

To avert such misunderstandings, make a point to foster good listening at work. Since culture is set by example, that means you, as the leader, should be an active listener. Don’t interrupt; instead nod, supply verbal encouragement while others are talking (a “yes,” “yep,” or “mmm hmmm,” should work well), and occasionally repeat back the main points to the speaker to be sure you’ve understood. Eventually, employees will take the cue and become active listeners too.

2. Follow up

As much as possible, get important notes and assignments into text format, and share them with all stakeholders. This way, if someone isn’t clear about the details of a task, he or she can search email archives or shared folders for the answer. At meetings, write down and disseminate minutes. You might want to rotate whose task note-taking is, so all employees experience the responsibility, honing their listening skills. If you have an employee who’s particularly susceptible to flawed memories, you might want to follow up with quick emails after even casual conversations to solidify your interpretation of the chat.   

3. Ask reports for weekly recaps

Following up is useful, but the only sure way to know that employees have understood what you mean is to hear them repeat assignments and goals back to you. You may want to ask reports to send you bulleted lists of what they’ve accomplished in a given day or week. Encourage them to include priorities for the next period as well. At first this might seem like micromanaging, but it will soon become second nature. This will help to nip possible errors in the bud by allowing you to help reports reprioritize immediately if they’ve understood you incorrectly, long before one misinterpretation becomes a full-fledged Mandela Effect.

Making sure that everyone you employ knows what’s going on in your mind, and in your business, is important. This is not just because you want to foster success in individual assignments, but also because each time you communicate accurately, you build up the shared wisdom of your organization, solidifying processes and habits for the long term. That eventually creates strong institutional knowledge, which is a powerful asset—so long as the knowledge is correct, not the false product of the Mandela Effect.

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