How to Deal With Colleagues Who Deny Reality

New research shows our typical method of dealing with them is dead wrong.

Posted Dec 02, 2017

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

It’s the season for holiday parties. They’re great for building workplace camaraderie and team spirit, but it also provides opportunities to hear a colleague — perhaps fueled by too much alcohol — say something so ridiculous that it makes your jaw drop. Perhaps it's something political — like, George Bush is behind 9/11, or Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. Or maybe they express science denialism, insisting that the Earth is flat or that the Apollo moon landing was faked. Maybe their delusion is related to your business, something that makes you realize that they're seeing the world through especially rose-colored glasses.

It happens more often than you might think. A four-year study by LeadershipIQ.com, an organization providing online leadership seminars, interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 organizations of all sorts that had forced out their Chief Executive Officers. It found that 23 percent of CEOs were fired for denying reality, meaning refusing to recognize negative facts about his or her organization’s performance. Other research strongly suggests that such 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 its hierarchy.

Of course, people may hold false beliefs in any type of organization. Professionals at all levels suffer from the tendency to deny uncomfortable facts. Scholars term this thinking error the ostrich effect, after the (mythical) notion that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they encounter threats.

How do you deal with people suffering from the ostrich effect? I regularly give keynotes and trainings, as well as do consulting, on dealing with truth denialism — in business, politics, and other life areas, and have recently published The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide, to provide guidance on how to address truth denialism in a range of areas.

This post provides a research-based process you can take to address 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 people with the facts, but research — and common sense, if the individual is, say, your supervisor — suggests that’s usually exactly the wrong thing to do. When we talk to someone who believes something we are confident is false, we need to suspect some emotional block is at play. Unfortunately, despite extensive research about its importance in professional settings, too many organizations still fail to provide training in emotional intelligence, including how to deal with colleagues whose emotions lead them to deny reality.

A number of factors explain why people may hold false beliefs. For example, research on the confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our beliefs. So even if sales are far below expectations, CEOs might reject that information while projecting good financial forecasts, if they believe their actions should lead the company to do well. 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 these types of cases, facing the facts would cause an individual to feel bad about themselves. Unfortunately, we often prefer to stick our heads into the sand than acknowledge fault, because of our reluctance to experience negative emotions. Research on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows that 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 them. In some cases, presenting the facts to people actually backfires, causing them to develop a stronger attachment to their incorrect beliefs, as scholarship shows. Moreover, we express anger at the person bringing us the message, a phenomenon researchers term shoot the messenger. There are many other mental errors that inhibit 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 research.

Instead, your goal should be to show emotional leadership and try to figure out what are the emotional blocks inhibiting colleagues from seeing reality clearly. Use curiosity and subtle questioning to figure out their values and goals, and how these tie in to their perception of self-identity. During a discussion, focus on deploying the emotional intelligence skill of empathy — 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, or rephrasing in your own words the points made by the other person, which helps build trust. Use empathetic listening, a vital skill, to echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel.

With the CEO discussed above, you might talk about how both of you share a desire for him or her to be a truly strong leader. Try to connect the traits and emotions identified by the CEO to specific examples of their 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 her department. I echoed her anxiety about the company’s 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 to the problem at hand — their emotional block. The key is to show them, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their truth denialism will lead to them undermining their own long-term goals, a research-driven approach to addressing thinking errors.

In the case of the CEO, you 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 leader. Encourage him or her to consider what aspects of the company’s performance might be problematic, and how they might be addressed. Offer to collaborate on addressing problems. Emphasize how only weak leaders turn away from reality, if the CEO proves stubborn, as the key to their emotional block could be a self-identity as an effective leader. Your goal is to help the individual incorporate a new character trait into their perception of what makes a good leader.

I asked the manager I spoke with to identify which of her employees contributed most to her goals for the department’s long-term performance, which the least, and why. I also had her consider who contributed the most to the team spirit and unit cohesion, and who dragged down morale and performance. As part of the conversation, I brought up research on why we sometimes make mistakes in evaluating colleagues and how to avoid them. She acknowledged the employee in question as being a poor performer and a drag on the group. Together, we collaborated on a plan of proactive development for the employee; if he did not meet agreed-upon benchmarks, he would be let go.

Conclusion

Conclude your conversations with positive reinforcement for colleagues accepting the facts, an effective research-based tactic. The more positive emotions the person associates with the ability to accept negative facts as an invaluable skill, the less likely anyone will need to have the same conversation with them in the future.

Lots more strategies like this are in my Amazon bestseller The Truth-Seeker's Handbook: A Science-Based Guide.