Is Denial Endemic to Management?

Poring over reader responses to his May column, HBS professor Jim Heskett is struck by the fact that they include behavioral, structural, and even mechanical remedies. (Forum now closed. Next forum opens June 3.)
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

How best is denial managed? Denial is endemic to management. It is a natural part of human nature, closely related to the survival instinct. It can be useful or disastrous. And it can be managed. That sums up at least many of the reactions to this month's column.

Jeffrey Scott commented that "it is a natural human tendency to devolve into denial." As Elaine Sihera put it, "Denial comes out of fear … of being wrong." Dan Wallace pointed out that neuroscientists tell us that "once you've solved a particular type of problem several times, your brain stops looking for new ways to solve it" and suggested that the phenomenon applies to organizations as well as individuals. In Steve Sheinkopf's opinion, "Denial is only part of the problem; not understanding your capabilities and resources is a bigger issue." Phil Clark raised denial behavior issues to a new level by commenting, "It is tough to even have people agree on what is being denied …."

Denial can be beneficial. Joline Godfrey waxed almost poetic in saying that "denial is a critical component of my ability to outwit the impossible." Rob Jones commented that "Denial might be best categorized as a form of risk taking." Aruna Sharma pointed out that "It's all about buying time to see if something can be done to reverse the trend …." Joe Schmid opined, "Denial is the first step of the change process—it is natural and necessary …." Len Bullard suggested that "Ruthless realism is, itself, pathological …. The professional pilot denies a crash is inevitable until a second before impact, and that ability to believe one can save the ship is critical to the attitude of actually saving it."

Remedies to denial in management include a "powerful board" (Ravi Mistry), careful listening on the part of leadership (Dayvon McCarrell, C. J. Cullinane), transparency (Joanna), measurement of project failure rates (Steve Romero), surrounding oneself with people who are not like-minded (Philippe Gouamba), the adoption of a "data-driven decision style" (David Cawlfield), the development of "early warning indicators" combined with an "external interference mechanism" (Gopal Padinjaruveetil), scenario planning of the type practiced by the Shell organization (Vic Williams), and attention to the T (threats) and W (weaknesses) in SWOT analyses (Thomas Stephens, Jr.).

Looking over the suggestions, I'm struck by the fact that they include behavioral, structural, and even mechanical remedies. They raise questions about how effectively the challenge of destructive denial can be addressed through the selection of leaders. That is, what qualities should we look for in leaders capable of employing denial usefully? To what degree do they include such things as self-confidence (within acceptable levels of hubris), self-awareness, the ability to listen, and tolerance of dissent? Or should we concentrate on structural, mechanical, or other remedies? How best is denial managed? What do you think?

Original Article

There's an old saying heard over and over that "What gets measured is what gets managed." That's why we measure so many things, including the unimportant, in business. And yet when poor results from the measures are presented to management, they can be ignored or, worse yet, denied, as happened so often in the days leading up to the recent Great Recession. It's denial that's the concern of Richard Tedlow in his new book, Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It. Tedlow, a business historian, defines denial as "the unwillingness to see or admit a truth that ought to be apparent and is in fact apparent to many others." In other words, denial is "seeing but not seeing." His interest is in cases where "denial … is avoidable and … leads to failure," such as Henry Ford's presumption that consumers would continue to want black autos in the face of evidence that they were becoming more interested in color; IBM's dogged pursuit of PC hardware while Intel usurped the microprocessor market and Microsoft became dominant in software for PC operating systems; and the belief by entrepreneurs and investors alike that online grocery orders to the long-gone Webvan, the largest single start-up during the Internet bubble, would become a preferred method of grocery shopping. Why do people practice denial? Because it is often easier, "safer," and more profitable in the short run, and more comfortable than confronting a problem, a poor decision made by a superior, a difficult personnel decision, or a failing strategy. At times, denial can lead to remarkable achievements against all odds, particularly for entrepreneurs nurturing start-ups. It is not to be confused with willful behaviors designed, for example, to shield potentially dispiriting information from others. Denial is described here in degrees, as on a spectrum between "facing facts" on one end and "denial" on the other. Further, Tedlow maintains that it happens as part of a pattern of behavior (like "deferred maintenance"), not as an isolated event. The lessons he takes from his examples are that: (1) "the time to deal with denial is right now," (2) facts have to be confronted, not avoided, (3) a climate of straight talk where truth can be spoken to power has to be encouraged, (4) leadership behaviors such as listening are essential, (5) behaviors designed to optimize the short-term that may themselves be symptoms of denial, (6) words matter; when words are used to obfuscate, denial may be near, (7) while obvious, it is critical to tell the truth, and (8) it is better to be unconventional and right than it is to be conventional and possibly wrong, as in the old saying among information technology managers that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." This leaves us with questions concerning just how these lessons are put into practice. Remedies obviously involve individual behaviors. For example, what do you do when the real issue of the next meeting you attend is addressed in the hallway after the meeting rather than in the meeting itself? How easy is it to do something about that in your organization? Why? What can you do, if anything, if you believe that the people to whom you report are in a state of denial? What does your response tell you about the nature of the organization? Is denial endemic to management? What do you think? To read more: Richard S. Tedlow, Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It (New York: Penguin Portfolio, 2010). Richard S. Tedlow, "Toyota Was in Denial. How About You?" Business Week, April 19, 2010, p. 76.
    • Ravi Mistry
    • Founder, The Mistry Group
    Tellow's first lesson - time to deal with denial is now - is perhaps the most important one and the most ignored. Quite often, technology companies fail to see that they are not the only solution or shall we say they are in denial that someone else could have better technology than they have. That, coupled with intentional procrastinating that it is not a serious problem and hence they can deal with it tomorrow, accelerates the failure. Unfortunately, even after the failure, they defend the previous actions and refuse to concede that mistakes were made.

    It is easier for the employee/manager to address denial to their bosses when it has more tactical, and less strategic, importance. What is the hardest is changing the opinion of the CXOs on matters that could have fatal impact on the company's survival - partly because of their ego but more importantly that they are in DENIAL.

    I believe that a powerful board that takes serious interest in the company's growth and is not afraid of taking action irrespective of their relationship with founders or CXOs if things are not going right could go a long way in preventing such failures.
    • CJ Cullinane
    In many ways I do believe that denial is a part of business management and human behavior in general. I have often seen, in business and life, major problems ingnored and denied until they explode into reality. Then it always seems that those involved are surprized!

    Often intelligence, education, and even experience are overriden by denial. I believe this is caused by 'conditioning' and ego. The banking crisis is a good example of total denial. Most people were taken by surprize when it occurred but the warning signs were there, we were just in denial.

    I have seen many decisions made from a position that is more personality based than team or logic based. Often the team member who brought the problems to surface was condemned as being negative, and the denial rolled on. Good communications can eliminate a lot of denial but we really have to listen and ask questions, and most importantly 'do not kill the messenger'.
    • Anonymous
    Denial is characteristic of life in general, let alone in business, finance, and management. Yes the numbers need to be right and benchmarks are "useful", again I reiterate here, benchmarks are "useful"; however there are many other very important qualitative dimensions that are too often overlooked by management teams and leaders.

    We need to break the cycle of the analyst merely creating a reality out of numbers and management making numbers out of that reality. I say to many, cut your pay grade, and be compensated for your actual value-added to the WORLD, rather than one's mere egocentric perception of the net worth of his/her work to society and to the world.
    • Steve Romero
    • IT Governance Evangelist, CA
    Though I would agree denial is endemic to management, I think focusing on management simply reveals a symptom of the problem. The disease is at the enterprise level, infecting its culture and plaguing everyone in it (admittedly some more than others).

    I have visited more than 100 companies to help them with their Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) processes. I urge them to determine and establish their "flavor" of PPM based on buusiness objectives specific to their organization, objectives almost always driven by their specific problems. One of the problems plaguing most organizations today is project failure rates (about 50% of IT projects according to just about every study I have seen in the past 20 years).

    So I ask them, "What are your project failure rates?" I have yet to find an organization that even measures their project failure rate, let alone respond to it. I haven't even encountered an organization that has defined what constitutes a "failed" project. When the topic is broached, it degrades into an emotion-filled discussion littered with rationalizations and denial.

    I believe the denial problem is fostered by two things:
    - an inherent human aversion to failure
    - organizational tendency to respond punitively to failure and "shooting the messenger"

    The enterprise-wide phenomenon of denial (endemic to leadership, management, and their charges) won't change until organizations foster a culture of accepting and identifying failures, and treating them as opportunities to learn and improve.

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist
    • Steve Sheinkopf
    • CEO, Yale Appliance
    Endemic of human nature is a better title. I dont agree with the IBM scenario. You can only have a few focus points before you overwhelm your organization.

    I think you definitely need to create a culture to better understand market opportunities. then again, the next article would probably be..."Risktaking...endemic of Management?"

    Personally, businesses should understand their niche and how to protect it and expand it slowly. Denial is only part of the problem, not understanding your capabilities and resources is a bigger issue.
    • Emry
    • CEO,
    I believe that denial is a way to escape accountability. By denying failures or the reality the person defers the consequences to a future point in time. Sometimes, this buys time to seek an alternative and often it leads to fading of the memory about the situation.

    An effective organizational policy to combat chronic denial of management could be frequent and regular independent outside auditing and have a fair and transparent accountability measures in place.

    Of course, it is quite natural that those in charge who are avid fan of denials might prevent these accountability measures to be materialized to serve their own interest.
    • Philippe Gouamba
    • Vice President of Human Resources, Skyline Windows, LLC
    Professor Heskett has challenged us with yet another great topic!

    Denial is not endemic to management. I think the problem is at least three-fold and deeper than it appears.

    One issue is that of ignorance; meaning that there simply exist lots of facts that a decision maker may not be aware of. If we all had infinite wisdom looking backward and infinite wisdom looking forward we would surely make better decisions. With perfect knowledge would we make perfect decisions? I still doubt it. Human nature is as predictable as it is unpredictable.

    The next issue is agenda. Too often, managers are tasked with a mission, an agenda with a desired outcome. Managers work to make that desired outcome a reality and in the process they forget that the premafacia data may not point in their desired direction. Against all odds, managers often want to be brave risk takers, forward thinkers (IBM was "wrong" and Microsoft was "right" in their forward thinking) who take a chance and secretly pray that thier decisions will be accepted as correct.

    Finally there is the issue of focus or blinders. I really believe that some managers are so focused on this issue or that task or that outcome that they gift themselves with a form of tunnel vision and fail to see what exists to the left or to the right of them. As they work, they convince themselves that what they are doing is right and that the way they are going about it is the only way. In the process of doing and achieving, they draft like-minded people to their cause and soon enough group-think sets in. If the team is on the right track, then they are all aces; all is well. If they are wrong, they will surely fail but as we all know, Planet Earth will not cease to rotate as a result of their failure.
    • Len Bullard
    • Vice President, Product Development, UAI
    What is denied and the importance of denial depends on one's role in the organization obviously. Denial of real facts is corrosive no doubt, but the gray denial meant to offset the employee(s) who take perverse pleasure or aspire to success by dwelling on negative facts can be very useful. The importance of outcomes necessitates the set and setting of endorsement of facts presented. It is possible to not deny obvious facts yet postulate different outcomes. The professional pilot denies a crash is inevitable until a second before impact and that ability to believe one can save the ship is critical to the attitude of actually saving it. Ruthless realism is itself, pathological given a situation where small differences can create very different outcomes. Just as obviously failing to prepare the passengers for an imminent hard landing is just as pathological.

    This is a game of the small, the large, and the catastrophic outcomes where the skill and insight into the best and worst cases of events has to be mastered. Sometimes one can save the ship and refusing to try because one's certainty about the outcomes are shaky is the wrong tactic.
    • Jeffrey Scott
    • Entrepreneur, Empire
    It is a natural human tendency to devolve into denial. One of my favorite things to point out within any social context is that people believe what they want to believe despite evidence to the contrary. This is applied in the professional, personal, spiritual, and emotional contexts. We're all guilty of said thoughts despite our best efforts to remain cognizant of our own proclivities. Denial of facts and circumstances - particularly of the unpleasant kind - is a natural byproduct of our flawed minds. When you add to this notion that managers and corporate types are simply "happy to have a job" highly desire the status quo and prefer that no one rock the boat, you have a downward spiral of collective denial that no one wants to admit, let alone do anything about. "Sure, we could change, but that is a lot of work. I'm too busy as it is with pointless busy work to deal with these unpleasant facts...."
    • Camille Smith
    • Leadership consultant, Work In Progress Coaching
    We deny because we have become detached from our commitment to be accountable and personally responsible -- we'd rather give up our voice and fit in so as not to stand out, or up for ourselves AND for the dignity of those we work with. When we see fitting in puts profits in our pockets but costs us our integrity, we are at a choice point.

    Just reading "Shop Class as Soulcraft", Matthew Crawford, as he posits: "Managers often communicate to cover up" not confront facts, and how that kind of denial creates it's "own sort of morality, one in which the fixed points of an internal moral compass [one's personal values, integrity] must give way to the 'drift of the organization' ".
    • Joline Godfrey
    • CEO, Independent Means Inc.
    I've always understood that denial is a critical component of my ability to outwit the impossible. I worked at Polaroid (in its happier days) and fell under the spell of Edwin Land's conviction that, "one should only work on impossible projects; ordinary people will handle the rest."

    However, conscious of the dark side of denial, I compensate by hiring smart people unafraid of confronting me. I think both denial and clear-headed pragmatism are required to lead and manage well.
    • Vic Williams
    • coach, a process coach
    Denial, and I perceive groupthink. The individual has a hard time changing when everybody else is urging more of the same. I think this is the same pattern that Shell's planners aim at in their scenario and role plan activities. Managers need to have new lights turned on, shining on alternate ways to view and do things. And they need habits bumped along new paths, because what they say and what they do are all too often different - while being in denial.
    • Chuck Morrissey
    • Prof, Pepperdine Univ
    A corporate venturing model can be a relief valve for pent up anxiety over anticipated threats or substitutes.. It would have been ideal for DEC and Polaroid who must be the most classic examples of "deniers" in recent years. Providing a new venture vehicle with independent investors can be a win-win.
    • Tom Dolembo
    • consultant, founder, Disaster Planning Assoc.
    Denial is the business partner of consensus. Until management practice rewards diversity, controversy, and contended opinion, denial is endemic. CEO's are hired by consensus worshiping boards. The metrics approach, the worst of which has become what is left of the Balanced Scorecard but others abound, reward gaming the numbers, fixing the promotion algorithm, and creating a cloned organization. What we are seeing (or not seeing) are those fired or marginalized for having sight, and individual integrity. As companies become successful, they divest themselves of critical insights. Their metrics evolve to support the illusion of management at this stage, and what is measured becomes illusion. Compensation consultants conjure the final demons, and gift us with CEO's with denial as their mantra as we dump the innovators and bulk up for the sellout.

    It might be a kind of Heisenberg Principle, where what is measured then becomes the illusion of the measurement system.
    • Thomas Stephens Jr
    • Human Resources
    My first response to your question is yes. Then again, I need to qualify my yes response; denial is common to the management I know. That said, I would further assert that denial is endemic to management proportional to the success rate of continuing enterprise performance. Your examples of IBM, Henry Ford, and online grocery shopping illustrate my point.

    Over the years, more than 40 now, I have developed a saying of my own around denial, especially among business management and leadership teams. I have come to dub their behaviors of denial as the Ostridge Syndrome. As the designation implies, their heads are positioned so that they, by design, cannot see their environment. Secondly, the physical positioning of the head in the sand causes that part of the anatomy, otherwise obscure and unseen by others to appear with prominence. It is generally this part of the anatomy that is the conversation starter for the meeting in the hallway after the group meeting.

    By now, you likely have come to believe that I have strong feelings about denial. You are correct, I do. My position is that, if you take on the profession of management, you know and understand the four dimensions of a SWOT analysis (to me, this is management 101). If the "T" in the SWOT analysis cannot be talked about openly and candidly as the "S" and "O", frankly, you have an Ostridge in the making. (I hold the same for the inability to talk openly and candidly about the "W".)

    Knowing myself as I do, provided the impetus for me to develop the ability to TELL, rather than withhold, the truth. I have come to appreciate that how I present information is as important as the information presented. This has been a challenge, for sure. However, I do like the dividends. My point being, when I know (per the data), this will never work; I have to position my argument so others will choose to listen, hear, and understand. As I said, I have been practicing this for more than 40-years. (Good luck to the neophyte.) However, I believe that if you are not willing to participate in the solution... find another vocation.
    • Paul Karres
    • President, Nevada Leadership Institute
    Denial is a phenomena at all levels and all cultures. Al Capone, John Dillenger, and "Two Gun"Crowley were killers in the early 1900's, and all three went to their graves truly believing they were right. With a public company or government operation, that mind set is not acceptable, but because of basic human nature, it is almost impossible to corrrect. It is the unique leader that can say, "I screwed up".
    • Phil Clark
    • Clark & Associates
    This is as old as mankind. Denial is part of the human condition and programmed into the brain for survival. We avoid things we do not like or want to face. Can we manage or lead people out of denial? Only with skill and effort. If anything, recognizing denial and working through it is the only solution....but.....unfortunately most companies have their "own blindspots and denial" running rampant. It is tough to even have people agree on what is being denied because everyone has a "logical" and sound viewpoint on an event, situation, or process. We can always justify why we do not want to face something or do something. It is almost like trying to catch fish in a barrel by hand. When you think you have it cornered it gets away.
    • Anonymous
    If denial means not looking at facts (and therefore not taking timely preemptive action to assure some positive outcome), why presume such behavior is a "failure"? In not a few circles, it is a winning strategy.

    One of my favorite quotes is a statement made by a commercial nuclear power executive: "Let's not go out seeking problems, we'll only find them". Scenario planning and risk management are hard work. Resources to seek and solve problems directly reduce corporate earnings; resources to combat actual problems after-the-fact are fully reimbursed by rate-payers, with interest. The proactive course of action impacts bonuses and future promotions, reacting to a situation brings opportunity to demonstrate the full measure of one's leadership and career potential. And the civil fines for regulatory noncompliance are less than trivial.

    But why assume that denial is only an issue within business ranks? After all, Congress and the Administration have fully tax-subsidized more nuclear power plants and guaranteed a new, rapid escalation in high-level nuclear waste even as they've eliminated the single long-term storage option under development these past 30 years.

    A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
    • Gerald Nanninga
    • VP, Retail Ventures Inc
    Most of the people at the top of organizations have large egos. Telling these big egos they are wrong will get you nowhere.

    Rather than try to convince them they are wrong, use that ego against them. Convince them that an additional approach (in the proper direction) will better feed their ego. If the ego is based on power, get them to see the extra power in the additional thought. If the ego is based on money, show them how the additional idea will make them richer.

    One time I was trying to get a book published which claimed that a lot of common management wisdom was wrong. The publisher said that approach would not sell, because none of the audience would want to admit they were wrong. She said effective business books merely claim to enhance (add on to) the brilliance the business executive already has. This they will accept.

    Good advice.

    Remember, the ultimate goal is changed behavior. If you can change behavior while still leaving a bit of denial (for awhile), then you have done your job.
    • Sherpa
    A failure in trust begets skepticism, which begets cynicism, which begets denial.
    • Anonymous
    The unconscious mind processes more than we want to believe; this can play a major role in brilliant minds becoming stuck in denial. The flip side of denial is acceptance, leading directly to required action and change. The cascade of necessary steps to pursue the alternative to denial can be daunting. When the risks of change are taken into account, the expected value of making the effort to address a possible problem versus that of going along with inertia may be comparable.
    • Gopal Padinjaruveeil
    • Enterprise Architect, Capgemini
    Denial is not endemic to management (Organizational Behavior) alone, it is probabily endemic to Human Behaviour too.

    While I absolutely agree with Steve that the denial problem is fostered by two things:
    An inherent human aversion to failure.

    Organizational tendency to respond punitively to failure and "shooting the messenger."

    While humans have an inherent aversion to failure and all rational behavior is motivated by desires for success,

    While desire for success is acceptable, Problem is when Denial becomes a defense mechanism and refuses to accept the problem and stop continuing the same behaviour.

    An alcoholic who tells himself and the world "I can quit any time I want to." He doesn't quit, though, and doesn't recognize the impact of his drinking on himself or on those who care about him.

    The same defense mechanism can be applied to management behaviour too. Most managers honsetly beleive that these issues can be fixed over time, and what is missing in Orgaizations is

    1) The lack of metrics/measures to indicate that things are indeed bad (crossing the point of no return?) .. "What gets measured is what gets managed." No Measure - no need to manage- an easy way to get into the Denial mode

    2) If the metrics are there then "Who will bell the cat".. the lack of Organization culture where there are avenues for 'whistle blowing'.

    3) Lack of transperancy /Dictatorial leadership style coupled with an inner core of advisors or "Yes men" cronies who gives a false notion that "everything is OK".
    • Rob Jones
    • CEO, IngoodCompany
    As we are warned regarding a wide array of substances and behaviors, "Moderation in all things."

    Denial might be best categorized as a form of risk taking; and many, if not most of us are prone to it as an initial reaction to almost anything that runs counter to a belief. The reasonable [i.e., healthy] person can shake it quickly enough when confronted with a few facts, and begin to engage in analytical assessment of the propriety of holding to the belief. Moderate denial upon any challenge is perhaps prudent, a function of the innate wisdom in true leaders that enables them to stay the course, against the odds. At the very least, it is what enables all of us to make decisions and stick to them despite uncertainties.

    On the flip side, however, I'd wager that "safety" is not the modus operandi of the chronic and pernicious denier, but is perhaps founded in the same driver that leads gamers to stay at the betting tables despite knowing that the vast majority of gaming participants lose. "I'm different. I'm not a loser. I'm going to win." Entire destination cities are built around our addictive determination to beat the odds. Apparently, so are at least a few business organizations.

    A great starship captain once said, "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." His final victory was Pyrrhic. Risk taking is a characteristic of leaders. Moderate risk taking is the sign of a healthy leader. Chronic and unreasonable denial is a "Captain Ahab" syndrome, a form of risk taking characteristic of unhealthy leaders. Denial is human. Immoderate denial often requires professional help.
    • Adelia Mattos
    " Denial" is a very interesting subject although i understand - as a psychoanalyst - that this is an ego defense -mechanism very useful and seeing as normal at a times - in certain circumstances - but very deleterious if it is a constant response to all difficulties of life. This "behavior pattern " - this " pattern" of response is properly of psychotic personality. Being thus it is not just " endemic to management" but endemic to human being with psychotic behavior - more usual in some than in others; mental health (or insanity) is directly linked to the "denial" degree that the person makes use in its personal (including professional) life.
    • Joseph
    • Davies, Davies Intercontinental Corporation, Japan
    Denial is unfortunately ubiquitous without much attention to addressing it.

    We find it in civil service particularly in developing nations in spite of being signatories to international conventions. This eventually leads to encouraging corruption. We also find it in the private enterprises where corporate responsibility is compromised for temporary gains.

    Compliance to policies and rules coupled with enforcement and monitoring will go a long way in containing this belated societal illness.

    Professor Tedlow's efforts, I believe must be globally promoted and effected.

    Joseph Davies, CEO
    Davies Intercontinental Corporation, Japan
    Founder: The Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan
    • Kamal Gupta
    • CEO, Edseva Software (P) Ltd
    Denial exists, despite instance after instance of the disaster it can lead to. My take is that it is more prominent in organisations where short term results (this quarter) is more important than the medium and long term.

    That would translate into typical American style management being more prone to denial than say a Japanese management. If my job depends upon the performance in this quarter, I would care two hoots about what my actions do to the organisation over a year or more.
    • Roy Bhikharie
    • Managing-director, Papaya Media Counseling
    I think that Denial is not only endemic to management but to human nature as well, and has deep psychological causes as generally agreed upon. Assagioli (1975) said that some people have a distinct vision of their goal, but are risking that their 'ideal picture' might be too rigid; they should be willing to modify or even change it if later experiences, or other outlooks demands this, thus, like proactive persons being outer-oriented. Other individuals have a more plastic psychological constitution, and live spontaneously, following indications and intuitions rather than definite plans; they might become too passive and negative, accepting unconscious forces, wishes and desires, instead of developing the ability to stand steady during the inevitable phases of inner aridity and darkness, and preventing their personality from feeling abandoned, thus, like reactive persons being inner-oriented.

    Interfacing proactive living (i.e., predominantly analytical, goal- and future-oriented--a kind of inside-out thinking imprisoned by fixed outer orientations) with reactive living (i.e., predominantly present, empathic and intuitively oriented--a kind of outside-in thinking imprisoned by fixed inner orientations) to pursue aspirations, thereby, deepening and enriching an open unconscious-conscious relationship, can help. Being proactive, we can pursue our aspirations and restore low self-awareness, and being reactive as well, we can search for new opportunities and challenges, avoid psychological biases, prevent goal-fixation, overcome unconscious uncertainties or fear of failure, and solve outdated or biased conceptions to regain inspiration and develop resilience. For more on this topic, please read:

    Reviewing a Biography of Each of Us: The ghost in near-death experiences presses for self-management to enjoy work, life and society by Roy Bhikharie
    "A book that may help readers balance the demands of life ... some interesting topics ... Some content is inspiring ... the writing resembles a doctoral thesis ... On the positive side, the author includes helpful exercises and, thankfully, numbered conclusions at the end of each chapter ... The 'environmental survey' (work environment, that is) ... is of particular value ... Some pearls of wisdom here ..." --Kirkus Discoveries Aug/2009
    • Vanitha Rangganathan
    • Malaysia
    Denial is a profoundly negative human behaviour. Enduring abusive relationships. Ignoring medical conditions. The list is endless. Often times, we ignore the obvious or deny the gravity of problems because they are typically caused by our personal failures in making the right choices.

    In an organisation, however, there is a greater evil constantly at play. Ego. Multiple egos. The egos of decision-makers are perhaps as generous as their paychecks. Perhaps, one of the (discreet) core competencies required by a leader is the keen ability to ignore the outcome of one's poor choices despite knowing the impact it may have on the business or even worse, the morale of resources. Past mistakes are constantly swept under the carpet, to be discovered by future leaders whom, more often than not, conveniently repeat this cycle of ignorance.

    Yes, we may argue that leaders are faced with greater responsibilities and mostly bound by policies and stakeholders' demands - but admitting failures is a more noble feat than denying the obvious and projecting it elsewhere. Leaders should (swallow their pride) and perhaps, be grateful for 'messengers' who strive to say it as it is - albeit, it is an uphill task managing this perspective - honesty is very much needed for an organisation to prosper and to avoid a greater pandemic altogether.
    • Aruna Sharma
    • Officer on Special Duty (OSD), Worlds Window Group, India
    Many a times disturbing trends are visible, yet in the hope of improvement in external conditions over a period of time or some unknown new factors/ plans to emerge changing the scenario in organisation's favour, taking time for searching professional help to answer the challenge, and keep on doing more of the same in the mean time having no other option, management remains in a deliberate denial mode. Its all about buying time to see if something can be done to reverse the trend and admit it only when a way to deal with the situation is found working.

    Denial could also be a result of ignorance generated out of opaqueness in reports due to complexity of operations.
    Usually organisations do not measure how big a perceived threat can turn out to be ? So while management is still toying with the idea of taking a threat seriously or not, the crises blows out of proportion.
    To handle denials, following may be useful:

    1. Listening to the listening of the organisational & business community and customer community in general. Putting mechanisms in place for the same.
    2. Ensuring that entire operations can be seen in a transparent manner comprehensively at one point.
    3. Putting mechanisms in place for external environment monitoring for threats to business and their probable impacts.
    4. Giving serious considerations to odd man out voices.
    5. Promoting Innovation audits and compliance
    6. If an organisation management does not see a solution to a threat and is in a denial mode, the first thing is to declare a crisis/ or ask a question at all the possible places where they can and keep working on it till they do get an answer.
    • Joanna
    Many of the comments indicating that denial is part of the human condition are backed-up in the book 'Vital Lies, Simple Truths'. The book tells of Albert Schweitzer's experiencing little pain while being attacked by a lion. In this case, I think we can agree that our body's ability to mask the reality of pain allows us to think about survival. The author makes the case that emotionally the same mechanism is in place.

    In my long human experience, I have found that denial in the mind of the person doing the denying is essential (feels life threatening, stressful). For example, many of the things already mentioned: fear of failure, ridicule, or of being ostracized, and the need to justify decisions once made.

    Finally we have "The Emperor's New Clothes" as an insight into our collective ability to deny reality.
    • Anonymous
    Though denial is endemic and hardwired to the human condition, an individual's innate qualities (nature) can be combated by its counterpart, nurture and personal experiences. I say, strive to have no denials. Just TRY to live up to "YOUR", yes I say here, "YOUR", and not anyone elses, expectations. Max out and denial will be over-comed buy the virtues of personal humility in the long-run and the character traits of personal experiences will surely finish, and, even over-haul, the unfinished business by nature forces.
    • Elaine Sihera
    • Consultant, The Sihera Confidence Guide
    Denial comes out of fear. Fear of being wrong; fear of not being right; fear of not going with the group; fear of being found wanting and isolated; fear of not making the right impression; fear of not being as smart as other colleagues and fear of not managing effectively.

    This fear of 'failure' lies at the root of most decisions, outcomes and inactions and is often a paralysing force in actually seeing the truth, or allowing one's self to see the truth, of a situation.
    • David Cawlfield
    • Principal Engineer, Olin Corporation
    Denial in business organizations is a common way to stay "politically correct." I recently heard it put this way, "nothing has momentum like a bad idea." This is particularly true when the boss claims this idea as his own.

    In my own experience, the best cure for this syndrome is for an organization to adopt a data-driven decision style. A colleague of mine puts it this way: "In God we trust, but all others bring data." Conducting repeated tests, analyzing data statistically, and accepting only statistically valid results; these are are the essentials to apply the scientific method in business.

    I't not exactly a novel concept, but it works.
    • Joanna
    Aruna's points 2 and 4 speak to transparency. This is a powerful mechanism minimizing the ability to deny. Having many eyes on the same issue with the ability to provide honest feedback helps get to the right solutions.

    Someone once said, 'we are as sick as the depth and breadth of our secrets.'
    • Gopal Padinjaruveetil
    • Enterprise Architect, Capgemini
    There is a subtle difference in individual denial (Human level) and denial at a management level (organizational), at an organizational level the dynamics are more complex, because the denial is not at an individual level, it is generally a collective denial and there are many factors in play here like

    1) Organization's Culture
    2) Organization's leadership style
    3) Organization's Power structure
    4) Organization's Risk Acceptance Policies (willingness to extend the risk to unknown levels).

    While transparency is a good mechanism, what is truly needed is "early warning indicators", and the collective ability of the organization and its eco systems (Governance Structures - internal and external) to recognize these early warning indicators and interfere and manage the behavior with due diligence.

    One thing that the global economic downturn has taught us is that the belief or the school of thought that, individuals and organizations (and nations) will always behave rationally at all times and all situations is not true. Denial is irrational behavior, and the notion of self correction (rational behavior will take over at some time) may not work at all times, and in such cases an external interference mechanism has to be in place, or as we have seen historically "nature" will take over and correct the situation.
    • Joe
    • Schmid, Oak Leaf Consulting, LLC
    Denial is endemic for good reason - Denial is the first step of the change process - it is natural and necessary and isn't ever going to go away. On the other hand, getting stuck in it is a huge problem because Denial is such a comfortable cozy place. Denial is a leadership issue which starts with leaders dealing with their personal devils emanating from the facts confronting them. Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression, all are steps that an organization must pass through to get to Acceptance and meaningful action. Moving quickly through these grieving steps, inherent in any change process, is the challenge.
    • Narasimhan Gopalan
    • VP, Oracle Financial Services Software
    I'd like to propose an approach to analyse the motivation and the outcome of denial from the context of (a) the leadership style and (b) the magnitude of issue that is being denied; I believe a combination of the two could yield a better analysis.

    If the denial is from a leader of autocratic and selfish nature for which we can have many examples in the history as well as in the contemporary corporate leadership, it is a fallout of the self-belief of the infallible nature of oneself and the hubris of past success. In such cases, some amount of denial can possibly sail the leader thru for they have built a fairly long history of successes. However, repeated denials could lead them to eventual failure and erase the track record of success. When leaders are successful there is a tendency to rely on their past experience that made them successful besides clouding their ability to gain in-depth insight into the issues by seeing and listening to all the signals and sounds that are all around! The prevalent tendency is also to ignore the negative signals and early warning signs supposing them to be of no significance or of temporary nature.

    An authentic leader who resorts to denial in the larger interest of the company or to keep the morale of the people could possibly be doing the right thing when things are not going too well but accepting the situation openly could cause a negative impact on the morale of the team. The leaders have a responsibility to keep the head high and to keep the flags flying high even in most difficult situations. Here, the leaders are not in denial mode due to ignorance or to protect their personal turfs but in the larger interest or a bigger cause. Here the leader attempts to create a positive force and optimism that is expected to overcome the negative effect of the situation.

    Next ... the magnitude and gravity of the issue or risk. Bill Gore's waterline principle comes in handy to differentiate the big vs. small denials. The denials of below waterline issues or decisions that are below the waterline require more careful consideration for the impact is expected to be of considerable impact.

    To combine the two aspects namely, leadership style and issue magnitude, I believe that the haughty leadership and denial of the below the waterline issues, could lead to the downfall of the organizations. Here is where the great leaders, I believe, would differentiate themselves from ordinary and selfish ones by being by being able to face the facts courageously and take bold measures out of conviction and not out of fear or personal interests.
    • Dayvon McCarrell
    • Instructor Supervisor, Government/Military
    First, allow me to state my views/opinions are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of the military!
    I believe all previous posts were great points, from Egos to fear of failure.

    From my personal experience in dealing with senior leadership, listening is a major problem as described in point #4 from above: (4) leadership behaviors such as listening are essential.

    A disconnect is created between Senior and middle management if senior leadership is not willing to hear the potential effects or current situations that arise from their decision. From this, fear of being wrong and losing their job plays a major role. If a person fails as a CEO, the chances may be slim he/she may be able to fill another CEO position with another company. Due to this, there is a drop in power, respect and earned income potential. So, instead of admitting failure, why not Deny Failure or state the approach that was presented to the masses was not carried out properly.

    With Denial comes a price. A CEO does not know everything; however, the information is out there if the CEO is willing to accept failure supported by solid facts. From these facts, I believe will determine how organic the company and CEO are to incorporating minor or major changes for positive results.

    CEOs must have the ability to listen in order to move the company forward. People, for the most part, will and want to do a good job. All people want in return is recognition and the ability to go against the grain without fear of reprisal if warranted and backed by pertinent data.
    • Saurabh Dwivedy
    There is gaping chasm between the Ideal and the Practical. Many a time, life goes beyond textbook codes of ideal conduct. You've made a wrong decision somewhere in the discharge of your duties. Your job is at stake. Your family and life are at stake. And of course you have a sense of duty and guilt to deal with. What do you do? Practical and intelligent people can offer scores of solutions and how-to's to get out of this rigamarole. But the one who is in the thick of the things is the one on whom rests the ultimate decision of taking a call - one way or the other. Some lucky ones survive. Most others perish. Such is life. And no amount of strategic thinking or risk mitigation techniques are ever going to offer the ultimate panacea that would relieve humankind of the untold suffering that life inevitably brings in its wake.

    People speak of maintaining transparency, a system of checks and balances and ethical conduct to keep things under control. But do they really work? Didn't the Great Depression happen in spite of most of these conduct-guidelines firmly in place? Humankind has been doing business since centuries past. What has changed over the centuries - apart from adding more and more rules and regulations to our code of conduct?

    The lust to make money stays. And so long as this over-arching ambition to incessantly keep running after the "next-summit" stays - who's going to ensure that the "ambition" stays within the ambit of what's socially acceptable? At the risk of sounding very negative indeed my experience tells me nothing really changes - Sarbanes-Oxleys of the world notwithstanding. We'll have rules and more rules and we'll perhaps discussion forums will never tire of discussing and debating the why's and the wherefore's. But life will go on. Deny or accept - it doesn't really matter.
    • Dan Wallace
    • Partner, Launchpad Partners
    I agree with Joanna - there is a reason why the story of the Emperor's New Clothes survives and continues to inform us.

    Many of the comments have made this more complicated than it is. What appears as "denial" to outsiders is, to the insider, simply the adherence to settled knowledge. Our brains are wired to do two things when we confront new information. The first is to find patterns in it. We couldn't survive if we treated every situation as new. The second is that once we've identified a pattern, we filter new information in or out depending on the degree to which it conforms to the patterns we understand.

    Both of these phenomena have been documented by neuroscientists. (The first is pretty obvious. If you have any question about the second, ask yourself how else Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann could possibly live in the same universe, each with diehard fans who are convinced that the other guy is the anti-Christ.) In fact, the research on the second phenomenon shows that once you've solved a particular type of problem several times, your brain stops looking for new ways to solve it (when was the last time you tried to find a new way to calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle?). That's what homework is about. It makes us efficient but limits creativity.

    Like individuals, every company has a belief systems, a shared understanding of how the world works. If the company has been successful at all, the belief system will have a basis that was factually sound at some point in the past. The problem is that reality evolves, while, for the reasons described above, the belief system remains static. People filter out information that conflicts with the belief system because, after all, it can't possibly be true. The underlying reason why every consulting client I ever had called me was that the gap between the belief system and the current reality had grown so wide that the pain was intolerable. And all any of them ever wanted was for me to tell them that the belief system was right and the reality they were observing was wrong.

    This phenomenon is pretty well documented. My friend Adam Hartung calls in "Lock-In." I coined the term "Corporate Kryptonite" to describe it. Gary Hamel talks about "Business Model Orthodoxies." Last March, the HBR published an article authored by consultants at the Conference Board on the subject "Growth Stalls," sudden drops in revenue and profit growth that virtually all companies experience if they live long enough, and from which few recover. The common cause: excessive reliance on obsolete beliefs and assumptions about the company and its market.

    These obsolete beliefs often seem positively silly to outsiders, but are accepted as received wisdom by insiders. The best one I ever heard came from the leadership team of a very sophisticated printing company, who told me (independently of one another), "The first thing you have to understand about our business is that we don't make money on printing. We make it by reselling paper and ink." Since they didn't actually resell paper and ink unless they'd printed something on it first, this statement was preposterous, and yet was totally believed by a group of smart, well-educated executives. I could go on. . .examples abound.

    Again, the important thing to remember is that this is a hard-wired human trait. If you have a pulse, you do it. The best authority on this subject is Pogo, who said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

    The only way I've found for business leaders to inoculate themselves is to be aware that what they know is true actually becomes less true every day, and that they won't be able to see it. Armed with that awareness, smart leaders constantly seek the perspective of outsiders, whom they invite to challenge that which the leader knows is true.
    • David Physick
    • Principal Consultant, Glowinkowski International Limited
    Is there a loose thread running through all these comments that we are denying denial?! Jim Collins's Level 5 Management concept speaks of humility and fierce resolve. This necessitates being honest about oneself and having the urge to do something about it. Here in the UK, I find the post-election landscape fascinating in terms of the mixed views about the present economic situation. I think the country is broke and needs review its house-keeping budget spending only where necessary.

    If we continue to deny this, the structural implications from being loaded with debt at more costly rates in interest when our credit rating is dunked are frightening. The same applies to many other countries. Denial can pay dividends when it helps overcome risk aversion. It can also be enormously costly when it results in recklessness and going out naked as did our friend the Emperor so rightly quoted by many earlier commentators.
    • Anonymous
    Two of the greatest forms of denial are 1) the denial that comes of great success and 2) the denial that precedes failure. In the first case, a brilliant entrepreneur or scientist, creates a billion dollar company with the help of a core team and once the company is sold immediately forgets he/she had help. This type of denial leads to wreckless investing by the former CEO because he/she attributes the success to their own genius and no longer seeks appropriate counsel when making important decisions. The result is the loss of a great deal of the original funds that were made by the entrepreneur. The second type of denial also comes at the senior management level, when things at the "lower levels" in the company are not going well, but senior management's lifestyle and everyday contacts within the company shield him/her from the real facts.

    The economy is bad, orders are slowing, budget is off, but "the turnaround" is just around the corner because senior management needs to continue to press on with the message of future success in order to keep their jobs and maintain the status quo. Eventually, the fall is far greater and more serious that it needed to be because of the protracted period of overspending and inaction. Immediate acceptance of bad news and careful response and action lead to faster company corrections and less damaging outcomes for all.
    • Edward Hare
    • Retired Director...Strategy and Planning, Fortune 250 Manufacturer
    Is denial endemic to management? You betcha.
    So many thoughtful comments on this subject tell me it's part of the human condition, not just a sympton of "management" and business life. How long did Bernie Madoff think his Ponzi scheme would escape discovery? Did Ellliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods delude themselves into believing their dalliances would never come to light? Is America in denial regarding the long term effects of public spending far beyond its means? Or that the American standard of living is sustainable? Or that living on the San Andreas fault line makes good sense? Denial comes in so many flavors and colors.

    One had better first decide whether denial is an ACTIVE disregard for facts and circumstances or a more subtle expression of preferences that we don't question (challenge?) a conventional wisdom, status quo, and/or desired pathway and outcome. And figuring out whose ox might get gored is central to the assessement. Those insights can help shape the answer to the really important question I see in Professor Heskett's introduction....."what can you do, if anything, if you believe that the people to whom you report are in a state of denial?" Then it's a personal it a cause worth fighting? Can a non-threatening way be found to allow others to get back off the limb I think they're out on? Can one person make the difference? Am I alone or can I enlist others?

    Do I have the time, energy and position to change minds? Or do I just walk away and find myself a more open and enlightened group to be part of? Answering those questions might help one decide what to actually do. If it's just a job.....well, those can be replaced. But some "denials" may be too big, too important for us to ignore.
    • Elizabeth Doty
    • Founder, Worklore
    In researching The Compromise Trap, I found that denial was one of the stages down the slippery slope into a "devil's bargain by degrees" at work. One person I interviewed put it best, "It's not a moral compass that's lacking, but the ability to stand apart. That is as terrifying to most of us in a business setting as it was in high school."

    In my view, every professional needs to build the internal reinforcement system that helps us take positive actions when we see our organizations beginning to detach from reality.

    Here are the five actions we all need to be able to do skillfully to avoid falling into denial or colluding with it:
    1 - Making healthy compromises (being willing to face hard truths and adapt to them ourselves)
    2 - Candid conversations (practicing with being honest about what we can and cannot deliver and when we disagree)
    3 - Positive limits (if we know we can say no in ways that do not invite retaliation, we are more likely to face the situations where we need to set limits. Dr. Ury's The Power of a Positive No offers an excellent model for how.)
    4 - Skillful influence (knowing how to bring in information from trust sources, connect the dots between those who see risks with those we need to act differently, demonstrating new options, etc, so an organization with its head in the sand can see its way out)
    5 - Constructive exit (always being willing and able to leave if the conditions become untenable, and doing so in a way that has the most positive impact)

    These do not necessarily require a lot of drama, but we do need to commit to act on them whether our organizational culture supports them or not.

    And we shouldn't wait until we see the organization is in denial -- the time to act on this is BEFORE the denial, practicing being different in constructive ways from the beginning.

    One coach I know advises his clients starting a new job to ask their boss right away, "How do you want me to disagree with you?"

    Isn't this really what we mean by taking responsibility?
    • Dave Schnedler
    • President, Corporate Planning Forum
    Denial is a fascinating topic to me because it has everything to do with decision making.

    Regarding the future and the present, I had this wonderful Mother-In-Law who had this rare and remarkable ability to strip away all emotion and sentiment to view reality unclouded by wishful thinking or other psychological traps.

    The golden rule for improving decision making is to learn from your mistakes. This requires both the discipline to record and preserve the rationale of a decision as it is made, and also the discipline, courage and freedom from fear to conduct an impartial and honest assessment.

    The medical profession enforces a peer review which forces doctors to face the brutal facts about decisions that they made.

    With respect to denial, some executives and teams handle this well and others poorly. There are tools and practices that we can implement to overcome the psychological trap of denial.
    • Glenn Mahoney
    • Software Architect, public sector
    Most good managers focus, on what they think is important to the needs of clients and the business. This is elevated to religion in the case of a project manager's attention to scope. It can be inherently defocusing and scope-increasing to grapple with the larger reality of any given situation. Thus, many good managers will naturally avoid such consideration and they and our organizations do not develop the skills to balance the need to get things done now with less comfortable and less understandable reality -- pseudo-objective reality is so much easier to manage.
    • Jim McConnell
    • James McConnell & Co.
    "and more comfortable than confronting a problem, a poor decision made by a superior, a difficult personnel decision, or a failing strategy. At times, denial can lead to remarkable achievements against all odds, particularly for entrepreneurs nurturing start-ups."

    I believe denial is not seeing data at all or seeing it and coming to an erroneous conclusion within oneself. That's different from seeing the data, coming to the correct conclusion within oneself and nonetheless pursuing a course of action contrary to the internal conclusion. I believe the latter is called politics. So, for clarity, perhaps in this article it would be worthwhile to distingish a bit more robustly between the two. But both certainly need this investigation and more. Happens all the time and it's especially damaging when the lapse is strategic.
    • Henk Saaltink
    Denial is a convenient escape for politicians facing a situation that requires a decision or action that conflicts with his or her established policy.
    • Dr. K.S. Ramachandra
    • General Manager, Star Orechem Ltd
    One thing is absolutely true: You can deny anything to anybody but you can never deny anything to yourself. The ego layer is very strong for the world outside yourself but it is very weak and subordinate to SELF in you. This is true with most of the leaders and personalities. And this SELF in them at one time or another makes them realize the mistake earlier committed and avoid repeat of the same.