It’s the season for holiday parties at the office. They’re great for building workplace camaraderie and team spirit, but when was the last time a colleague – perhaps fueled by too much alcohol – said something so ridiculous that it made your jaw drop? Perhaps they went into something political, claiming that George Bush is behind 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim? Perhaps they voiced science denialism, saying that the Earth is flat or that the Apollo moon landing was faked?
On the other hand, maybe they brought up something related to business that made you realize they are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It happens more often than you might think, not only at the lower levels of organizations, but also at the very top.
A four-year study by LeadershipIQ.com, a leading organization in providing online leadership seminars, interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 organizations of all sorts that forced out their Chief Executive Officers. It found that 23 percent of CEOs got fired for denying reality, meaning refusing to recognize negative facts about the organization’s performance. Other research strongly suggests that the behaviors expressed by CEOs “are felt throughout the organization by impacting the norms that sanction or discourage member behavior and decision making, and the patterns of behavior and interaction among members.” Together, these findings suggest that organizations where CEOs deny negative facts will have a culture of denying reality throughout the hierarchy.
Of course, people may hold false beliefs even in organizations where CEOs do not suffer from reality denial. Professionals at all levels suffer from the tendency to deny uncomfortable facts in business settings. Scholars term this thinking error the ostrich effect, named after the (mythical) notion that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they see threats.
How do you deal with people suffering from the ostrich effect? Dealing with truth denialism – in business, politics, and other life areas – is one of my areas of research. I regularly give keynotes and trainings, as well as do consulting, on this topic, and have recently published The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide to provide guidance on how to address truth denialism in all life areas, including business activities, both within ourselves and in other people. This article provides a research-based process you can take to address professional colleagues who deny the facts based on a just-published peer-reviewed academic piece.
Do Not Lead With Facts, Logic, or Reason
Our intuition is to confront our colleagues with the facts, but research – and common sense, if the colleague is your supervisor – suggests that’s usually exactly the wrong thing to do. When we see someone believing in something we are confident is false, we need to suspect some emotional block is at play. Unfortunately, despite the extensive research about the importance of emotional intelligence in professional settings, too many organizations still fail to provide training in emotional intelligence, including in how to deal with colleagues whose emotions lead them to deny reality.
A number of factors explain why people in business settings hold false beliefs. For example, research on the confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to our beliefs. So even if sales are far below expectations, CEOs might reject that information in projecting good financial forecasts if they believe their actions should lead the company to do well. In another example, I consulted for a company where a manager who made a hire refused to acknowledge the new employee’s bad fit, despite everyone else in the department telling me that the employee was holding back the team. The manager’s behavior likely resulted from what scholars term the sunk cost fallacy, our tendency to double down on our past decisions even when an objective assessment shows the decision to be problematic.
In both of these cases, facing the facts would cause the CEO or the manager to feel bad about themselves. Unfortunately, we often prefer to stick our hands into the sand rather than acknowledge our fault because of our reluctance to experience negative emotions. Research on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity, self-worth, worldview, or group belonging, we tend to dig in our heels and refuse to accept the facts. In some cases, presenting the facts actually backfires, causing people to develop a stronger attachment to their incorrect belief, as scholarship shows. Moreover, we express anger at the person bringing us the message, a phenomenon researchers term “shoot the messenger,” in similarity to the colloquial use of the term. There are many other mental errors that inhibit business professionals from seeing reality clearly and making good decisions.
Do Model Their Goals, Values, and Emotions
Some might ask: if emotions are the problem, what’s the solution? Let me be clear that emotions are not a problem. They are fundamentally important to the human experience, and we need both reason and emotions to make good decisions, according to the scholarship.
Instead, your goal should be to show emotional leadership and try to figure out what are the emotional blocks inhibiting your colleagues from seeing reality clearly. To do so, use curiosity and subtle questioning to figure out their values and goals, and how these tie to their perception of self-identity.
For instance, say you’re on the Board of Directors of the company whose CEO you see as denying the facts: consider a conversation about what they perceive to be the traits of a strong leader. In the case of the manager, I asked about her long-term goal for the department, and how she plans to achieve it. During the ensuing discussion, focus on deploying the emotional intelligence skill of empathy, meaning understanding other people’s emotions, as a way to determine what emotional blocks might cause them to stick their heads into the sand of reality.
Put Yourself on the Same Side and Build Trust
Next, you’ll want to communicate to them that you have shared goals and values. Doing so is crucial, as scholarship shows, for effective knowledge sharing in professional environments. Practice mirroring, meaning rephrasing in your own words the points made by the other person, which helps build trust in business relationships. Using the empathetic listening you did previously, a vital skill in selling, to echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel.
As an example, with the CEO, you might talk about how both of you share a desire for the CEO to be a truly strong leader. Try to connect the traits and emotions identified by the CEO to specific examples of the CEO’s behavior. With the manager, I steered the conversation to how she saw her current and potential future employees playing a role in the long-term future of the department she ran. I echoed her anxiety about the company’s financial performance and concerns about getting funding for future hires, which gave me an additional clue into why she might be protecting the incompetent employee.
Lead Them Away From False Beliefs
After placing yourself on the same side, building up trust, and establishing an emotional connection, move on to the problem at hand: their emotional block. The key here is to show them, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their current truth denialism will lead to them undermining their own goals in the long term, a research-driven approach to addressing thinking errors.
In the case of the CEO, you as a Board of Directors member might discuss how strong leaders welcome learning negative information and updating their beliefs toward reality, so that they can fix the problem effectively; in turn, failing to identify negative facts is a sign of a weak CEO. Encourage the CEO to consider what aspects of the company’s performance might be problematic, and how the performance might be addressed. Direct the conversation toward underperforming sales and financial forecasts at that stage, and offer to collaborate together on addressing the problem both of sales and of revising the excessively optimistic financial forecasts. Emphasize how only weak leaders turn away from reality if the CEO proves stubborn, as the key to the CEO’s emotional block is a self-identity as a good leader: your goal is to help the CEO incorporate a new character trait into their perception of what makes a good leader. Avoid mentioning the LeadershipIQ study unless you have to, saving it as a last resort.
For the manager, I asked her to identify which of her employees contributed most to her own goals for the department’s long-term performance, and which the least, and why. I also had her consider which contributed the most to the team spirit and unit cohesion in the department, and which dragged down morale and performance. As part of the conversation, I brought up research on why we sometimes make mistakes in evaluating professional colleagues, and how to avoid these mistakes. She acknowledged the employee in question as being a poor performer and a drag on the rest of the group. Together, we collaborated on a plan of proactive professional development for the employee for the next three months; if the employee did not meet agreed-upon benchmarks, he would be let go.
Conclude your conversations with positive reinforcement for professional colleagues accepting the facts, a research-based tactic of effective leadership. The more positive emotions the person associates with the ability to accept negative facts as an invaluable skill in business settings, the less likely you will need to have the same conversation with them. I hope these tactics help you assist your colleagues in getting their heads out of the sand of reality!