Differentiating Fact and Reality

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  • One step that is often left out of organizational processes is to look at the facts of the current situation. This form allows you to do a simple exercise that will help you see the difference between fact and reality with respect to an issue your organization is facing today. When you click on "Submit", you will receive an email that contains all of your responses for future reference.

    We're making a distinction here between “fact” and “reality.” Now most people–and most dictionaries–would probably say that fact and reality are the same thing. But are they? We find that in their usage they can often mean very different things.

    A fact is a true statement about something that has happened in the past or is happening in the present. It comes from the Latin (factum) for “that which is done.” It belongs to the universe and is true on its own merits.

    Reality, however, is much more difficult to pin down. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone suddenly exclaimed, “The reality is...,” and then finished their sentence not with a list of facts but with their interpretation of the facts? “Reality” in this sense refers to a coherent picture of the world that this person has created in order to make sense or meaning of the facts.

    “Reality” speaks not just to the past and present, but also to the future, since people base their actions on what they believe reality to be. But since there are no facts about the future (nothing in the future has yet been done), reality cannot be a function of the facts alone. A person’s “reality” is their interpretation of the facts; it belongs to them and reflects their own attitudes, beliefs, and life experiences.

    As a result, realities may attach the following elements to the facts:

    Value judgments Fact: My assistant was late three times this week.
    Reality: My assistant manages his time poorly.
    Comparisons to an unspoken standard Fact: I’ve worked here for 12 years.
    Reality: I’m the most experienced person on the team.
    Descriptions of the inner state or motivations of another Fact: My supervisor told me to take out the trash.
    Reality: My supervisor doesn’t respect me.
    Critiques and recommendations Fact: We have one teacher for every 25 students.
    Reality: We need more teachers.
    Attributions of causality Fact: You bought a dress. I didn’t buy a suit.
    Reality: I couldn’t buy a suit because you spent all our extra money on a dress.

    One can imagine the actions that the person believing in these realities might take (not giving their assistant greater responsibility, not listening to their colleagues’ ideas, etc.), even though a reality–unlike a fact–is not intrinsically true. Realities are not true or false, right or wrong, or good or bad. The only question is whether or not a particular reality helps the person who created it achieve the results they want to achieve.

    Many organizational processes take multiple realities into account by interviewing stakeholders, consulting recognized subject matter experts, and reviewing industry or sector reports. They seek the "right" answer by looking for areas of overlap among these many realities. But they often skip the step of simply looking at the facts–absent all of the interpretation provided by the experts. And yet, it is the facts of the current situation that offer the greatest insight as to what to do next.

    Now you will have the opportunity to explore this distinction with respect to an issue your organization is facing today. First, choose the issue you would like to understand more clearly. For example, is your business model not providing the results it has in the past? Are people not working together as well as you would like?

    Then, in the space below, write a short description of the current situation using only statements of fact, not of reality.

  • Now review what you have written above to make sure it only contains statements of fact. Revise your narrative if it includes any of the following:

    1. Value judgments
    2. Comparisons to unspoken standards
    3. Descriptions of the inner state or motivations of another
    4. Critiques and recommendations
    5. Attributions of causality