Listen for the Signs and Signals of Denial

Lake Tahoe

Denial is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous institutional and cultural ills. By denial I mean specifically the failure to see the facts and actually know where you are. No matter how smart or capable you are, if you are not clear about where you are, you are at high risk. I have seen it take down entire organizations. I have seen it and experienced it first hand. Denial is a disease that spreads rapidly and makes an organization unprepared and vulnerable to risks. It can start and spread rapidly.

So how can we listen for denial and kill it in its early stages?

In this brief essay, I will share some examples from my world and experience. I will share common phrases that indicate denial is present, taking hold or has the threat of taking hold in your culture, organization or other life unit.

I was a young lawyer working on an acquisition. The purchase price kept moving upwards until the finance people said it no longer made financial sense; the returns weren’t going to be where they needed. The senior executive working the transaction said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s strategic.” When the senior executive needed to justify the price to even more senior leadership, he made a distinction. He said, “there are actually two rates of growth, one for segment A and one for segment B and this is a segment B company.” The deal went through. I heard the words, “It’s a strategic acquisition” from everybody for months after the deal. In the end, we grossly overpaid for the company and eventually sold it at a loss.

What did denial sound like?

Two key things to listen for when you want to be aware of denial:

  1. The first thing to look for is when people change the subject. The finance person says the numbers don’t make sense. The strategist changes the subject. The strategist says, “It’s strategic.” How do you argue with that?
  2. A second indication to keep your ears open for is the making of distinctions. I had a Philosophy Professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in the 70’s. His name was Perry Mason, believe it or not. He said, when you are backed into a corner in an argument, either change the subject or make a distinction. And this is often what denial does. So be aware of it. In the deal scenario above, all of the sudden, out of nowhere, there was an industry segment that had a different growth rate. Not coincidentally, the new growth rate made the ROI work.

The picture above is from my favorite lake, Tahoe. I visited there last week. I have been going to Lake Tahoe for over 20 years and have owned property in the beautiful mountains overlooking the lake. The lake is down 5–7 feet in depth; down now to its natural rim. The drought in the West has taken its toll. And yet I still have friends who don’t believe in climate change or global warming. This is perhaps our worst case of world denial. What do my friends say who don’t believe in climate change? They say, “Oh, so now you like Al Gore? Al Gore is a liberal idiot.” They attack the people who are carrying the global warming flag. In Philosophy classes, we called this an attack “ad hominem.”

If you hear someone, in response to a statement, attack another person rather than deal with the issue, your “denial antenna” should quiver.

And finally, if you are a leader, someday you will find yourself in a challenging situation, financially or otherwise. What you will find in those scenarios is that often those closest to you will not tell you the facts. Why not? It is because we tend to reward people who make us feel good, and so your reports will act in accordance with those rewards. Leaders are like any other human beings; they seek pleasure and avoid pain. Bad news is a form of pain. Your reports and peers know this. Right when you need candid advice the most, you may not get it. Your reports may just stroke your ego. If someone says something contrary, your reports may attack the dissident.

Anytime you find yourself surrounded by only those who agree with you, you have to be aware of the potential that you are at risk of having a denial culture and someday suffering the consequences.

The failed Bay of Pigs invasion is often used to show Group-think, which is really a form of denial. Group-think is a form of denial where people care more about the group and getting along and reaching consensus than they do about the facts. The CIA thought they were in a much different place regarding the success of the invasion than they actually were.

Once you hear denial, you have to be like the child in The Emperor Has New Clothes and work to expose it. This may be uncomfortable, but when you or your culture suffers from denial, you are like the Titanic, potentially headed toward an iceberg you cannot see.

If you expose denial and you are chastised? This is a sign to move on to another organization.

As I reflect on success and failures in my own life, I believe the ability to see where you are clearly and precisely is one of the most critical success factors. If you lose track of that, you may not find out where you are until it is too late.

Listen for the signs and signals of denial.

Beware of clever distinctions, and those who change the subject when you get near certain topics. Personal attacks are often an indication of denial.

And finally, seed your environment with at least some folks who lack a filter. You know who they are. They are often unpleasant to be around, but they are valuable. Filtering can be a form of refracting, and cause you to lose your position and once you lose your position, you are at risk that no road can take you back.

Listening as a Martial Art is available now on Amazon!

Find me here on Twitter: @cashnickerson

Originally published at on July 22, 2015.