Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

Face it, we all do it:

  • The job we’re hopeful we’ll land has no chance of ever showing up in an offer letter.
  • That diet (mine in this case) that we think worked well has the regular 36″ waist size slacks still too tight.
  • The company that’s getting it’s lunch handed to it in the market continues to think and refer to itself as a market leader.
  • The organization that  fails to close on top talent always has a good explanation; “candidates were really interested in a different sector all along, and we should have recognized that right away; it’s not about us, it’s about them.

Denial. All denial. As Mark Twain said, “Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

It’s part of being human, the sort of stuff that gives you a lift to keep on going when times are tough though it clouds your ability to make significant change when you’re not seeing things realistically. As the research from Daniel Kahneman’s work Thinking Fast and Slow chronicles, it’s the stuff that makes it possible for people to function (and not get too discouraged), but it also can disable our ability to function well with a clear view of what’s around us.

Notes Kahneman:

A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.” (Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 202). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)

In short, we make things up, flawed by a poor recollection of history projected into what we thought happened, and what will subsequently occur in the future.

There are a number of ways for leaders and organizations to counter denial bias. Here are three of them:

  1. Use objective data; all of it. Things like statistics – particularly if they aren’t “explained away” – helps inform you with a reality mirror. Things like diet tracking books, calendars, looking through past correspondence, are all ways of shaking off hindsight distortion. “Facts are stubborn things” Ronald Reagan said. Make them your best friend; use them regularly.
  2. Court your critics – actively. Avoid cocooning yourself with “yes” men (or women). If the bias is to overcompensate to the positive, buffer it with the reality of the negative. Invite critics to the decision process rather than marginalizing them to “those people who just complain” and keeping them outside of the decision loop.
  3. Fess up to errors; call out and thank the people who pointed  them, or who you ignored on the way to making one. Nothing will change the culture of a denial-based team, workgroup, organization or corporation as quickly as having leadership take responsibility for mistakes and praise for folks who either called them out, or tried to help somebody avoid them. Nothing is a better cure; make it part of your regular routine (“My bad.”) and you’ll see great results with people taking responsibility for all their results, good and bad.
  4. Having a sober, accurate sense of what you’ve  done in the past gives you a better sense of what you’re doing now, and likely will do in the future.
  5. Using objective facts, unbiased statistics, and people willing and able to be critical will give you a clear – not cloudy – sense of what’s going on.

Guest author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better.

Young Businessman Burying His Head in the Sand courtesy of Shutterstock

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