Dealing With Denial Is A Team Sport

Dealing With Denial Is A Team Sport

07.24.14Ron Ashkenas

Two principles to keep in mind for dealing with denial in your own career and your work with colleagues

Great leaders tell it like it is. In other words, they focus on reality, no matter how painful or unpleasant it might be, and then figure out what to do about it. In contrast, less effective leaders sometimes avoid hard truths, argue with the data, and delay tough decisions.

While it’s easy to be critical of leaders who can’t face the facts, the truth is that most of us engage in denial at one time or another, usually without even knowing it. As human beings, it’s one of the most common defense mechanisms that we use to cope with difficult situations. It’s the first of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ now-famous five stages of grief, in which she observed that many people react to news of their terminal illness by denying anything is wrong with them. This is an extreme case, of course, but lots of business situations trigger denial as well. Here are two quick examples:

A large natural resources company acquired a smaller competitor and announced that it would be closing a number of low-producing mines within a year. Six months later the corporate HR manager visited these mines to help with the transition and was surprised to learn that the planning hadn’t even begun. When he questioned the mine leadership team he was told, “We’ve heard this story before but we produce too much ore for the company to really shut us down.”

The executive team of a pharmaceutical company knew well in advance that it was facing the loss of patent exclusivity for a particular drug, which would significantly reduce sales revenue in the coming year. Despite not having sufficient new products to replace these losses, the team delayed making commensurate cost reductions, with each manager saying that their people were indispensable.

There are many stories like these at all levels of organizations. Just the other day, I was talking with a twenty-five year old financial analyst who told me that she is looking for another job because the products in her division are becoming commoditized and will probably be sold off or eliminated. When I asked her how her colleagues were reacting to this she said, “They don’t believe it can happen to them so most of them aren’t doing anything.”

This brings up an important point about denial: It’s easier to see in others than in yourself. This means that coping with it usually needs to be a team effort. Even the most open and honest of managers sometimes engage in “wishful hearing” and interpret things the way they want them to be, instead of how they really are. That’s why really good managers value subordinates and colleagues who are not afraid to bring them bad news, tell them the truth, and help them peel away their own unconscious avoidance mechanisms.

Given these subtle psychological dynamics, here are two principles to keep in mind for dealing with denial in your own career and your work with colleagues:

Don’t assume that everyone sees the world through the same lens as you. Facts and data are usually open to interpretation, and people have different underlying criteria for how they analyze them. We all emphasize some things and discount others, based on past experiences, personality, and tolerance for discomfort. That’s why the financial analyst saw what she thought was the “writing on the wall” about her division’s future, while others in the group saw a different story.

Get tough subjects out in the open. Because of these different interpretations, find ways to facilitate and encourage dialogue, particularly when complex issues are on the table. While denial can still occur, it is less likely when teams are able to look at the situation from multiple angles, challenge underlying assumptions, and eventually get a better picture of what’s really going on. So while it’s true that great leaders usually don’t get trapped in the denial of hard realities, it’s often because they get a lot of help from their teams.

So yes, denial is alive and well in most organizations, which leads to delayed or inappropriate decisions, inaccurate or misleading communications, and a host of other dysfunctional outcomes. But remember that denial is a natural human reaction to anxiety-provoking situations, which is why it’s important for team members to help each other see the truth.

Download PDF

Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion

Leave a Comment