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How to Deal with an Organization in Denial

Updated: Apr 1

A year ago, President Trump was under fire by experts and pundits for being in denial about the seriousness of the pandemic. In the early weeks, the President referred to the virus as a hoax, refused to issue a federal stay at home order, and hesitated to fully utilize the Defense Production Act.

Unfortunately, leadership denial isn’t exclusive to presidents or pandemics. Henry Ford’s denial ended up costing the company a whopping $250 million.

Model T sales were declining, yet Ford dismissed the figures because he suspected rivals of manipulating them. One of his top executives warned him of the dire situation and Ford fired him. When he finally decided to make a new car, Ford shut down production for months and the company lost its lead in the market.

Denial is a prominent problem among leaders, and it can lead to serious consequences.

I was thinking about the power of denial recently while facilitating a meeting with a company’s leadership team. Even after presenting data to indicate irreversible decline unless the company changed course, the team struggled to see the problem. Their conversation immediately turned to a quick fix, which was the equivalent of throwing a rock into a raging ocean.

Solution aversion is a powerful barrier to organizational change.

Research indicates the majority of leaders rely on the ‘ostrich’ response to change, denying or ignoring the need to change until something forces a response.

A popular meme, which features a cartoon dog surrounded by flames, captures this sentiment perfectly. The caption says: This is fine.

There’s brain science and social science involved in our responses to change, but the bottom line is this: When the path to a solution seems too overwhelming or difficult, we prefer to avoid it.

From backburnering a diet to avoiding a tough conversation, the struggle is one we can all relate to in our personal lives.

Likewise, in the workplace leaders will downplay the importance of investing in a new strategy or refuse to admit a new product must be developed.

We are capable of convincing ourselves a problem doesn’t exist solely based on how thinking about the path to a solution makes us feel. Solution aversion is a powerful barrier to organizational change.

What’s the solution to solution aversion? Here are some strategies to consider.

Focus on Facts

Facts are difficult to deny, but they are also easily forgotten. We often let our emotions lead our decisions in a time of change, so it’s imperative the facts remain top of mind. Compile the data and post it prominently so it’s always visible.

Ask Questions

Early in my career I was journalist, which is where I learned the power of questions. Example: “Do you think relying on a single vendor might increase our risk if their promised due dates slip for some reason?” vs “I know you like that vendor, but we really need to diversify to minimize risk.” Questions lead to truths.

Install an Alarm System

When there aren’t systems in place for gathering feedback, leaders fail to anticipate or adequately respond to problems. Mentors. Think tanks. Reviews. Surveys. Continually gather feedback and ensure you have at least one person you can rely on to give you honest, constructive guidance.

Think Differently

Build a diverse team willing to engage in productive talks and debates on the best path forward. Collaboration is the gateway to innovation and it eliminates fear. When we’re supported by and working in community with others, we’re more likely to tackle tough tasks.

Sigmund Freud described denial as a state of knowing-but-not-knowing. We can know a problem exists, but we might not want to know or find the solution.

What we often forget is our lack of response still has consequences.

Whatever action you take, whatever decision you make, it’s influencing the future of your organization and all the people represented by, working in, or otherwise affiliated with it.

There’s no denying that fact, so choose your actions carefully.


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