Real Leaders

How Best to Deal With Colleagues in Denial

When was the last time a colleague said something so ridiculous that it made your jaw drop? A four-year study by found that 23 percent of CEOs were fired for denying reality — refusing to recognize adverse facts about an organization’s performance. 

We typically respond to people who deny reality by confronting them with facts and counter arguments. But research suggests this is precisely the wrong thing to do.

Research around confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our beliefs. We have an emotional investment in continuing to believe what we want to believe. Furthermore, studies on a phenomenon called the backfire effect show that when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our self-worth or worldview, we can develop an even stronger attachment to incorrect beliefs.

These mental blindspots are 2 of more than 100 dangerous judgment errors that result from how our brains are wired. It’s something scholars of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. We make these errors in work and personal life alike. An example, is the shopping choices we make, as revealed by a series of studies done by a shopping comparison website.

Fortunately, recent research shows us how to use pragmatic strategies to address these dangerous judgment errors — in your professional life, your relationships, or other life areas. It can be helpful to evaluate where cognitive bias is hurting you, and others on your team. Then, use structured decision-making methods to make “good enough” daily decisions quickly, more thorough methods for moderately important choices, and in-depth one’s for major decisions.

Such techniques will also help you implement your decisions well, and formulate truly effective long-term strategic plans. Also, you can develop mental habits and skills to notice cognitive biases and prevent yourself from slipping into them.

So, how do you deal with colleagues suffering from the ostrich head-in-the-sand syndrome?

Rather than arguing about it, it’s much more effective to use a research-based strategy. I developed one called EGRIP (Emotions, Goals, Rapport, Information and Positive Reinforcement), which provides clear guidelines on how to deal with people who deny the facts.

For instance, consider the case of Mike, a new product development team lead in a rapidly-growing tech start-up. He set an ambitious goal for a product launch, and as more and more bugs appeared, he refused to move the launch date. People tried to talk to him, but he hunkered down and kept insisting that the product would launch on time, and work well. I was doing coaching for the company’s founder at the time, and he asked me to approach Mike to try and resolve the issue.

E – Connect with their emotions

If someone denies clear facts, you can safely assume that it’s emotions leading them from reality. While gut reactions can be helpful, they can also lead us astray. What works better is to focus on understanding these emotions and to determine what emotional blocks might be causing them to stick their heads in the sand.

What I discovered in my conversations with Mike was that he tied his self-worth and sense of success to “sticking to his guns,” associating strong leadership with consistency and afraid of appearing weak in his new role as the team lead. He believed team members were trying to undermine him by getting him to shift the schedule — leading him to admit that he’d failed to deliver. This false association of leadership with consistency, and fear of appearing weak, is a frequent problem for new leaders.

G – Establish shared goals

It’s best to establish shared goals — crucial for effective knowledge sharing. I spoke with Mike about how we both shared the same goal of having him succeed as a leader within the company. Likewise, we both shared our goal of having the new product become profitable.

R – Build rapport

Next, build up a rapport by establishing trust. Use empathetic listening to echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel. I spoke to Mike about how it was hard to be worried about the loyalty of one’s team members. We also discussed what makes someone a strong leader.

I – Provide information

At this point, start giving new information, that is a little more challenging, but doesn’t yet touch the actual pain point.

I told Mike how research suggests that one of the most important signs of being a strong leader is the ability to change your mind based on new evidence. I gave examples, such as Alan Mulally saving Ford Motor Company through repeated changes of mind. If I had begun with this information, Mike may have perceived it as threatening. However, by slipping this in naturally, as part of a broader conversation and building a rapport built on shared goals, he accepted the information calmly.

P – Provide positive reinforcement

After a person has changed their perspective, provide them with positive reinforcement. This is a research-based tactic that shifts someone’s emotions. The more positive emotions a person attaches to accepting adverse facts, the less likely you’ll need to have the same conversation with them again.

With Mike, I discussed how he could best exhibit these characteristics — to show those trying to undermine him, that he was indeed a strong leader. I directed the conversation toward how he could show strength by delaying the launch of the new product. Eventually, he agreed, and I praised his ability to show strength and leadership by shifting his perspective, based on new evidence.

Good luck, and remember that you can use EGRIP in a professional setting, and almost any other situation, that requires you to steer others away from a false belief that causes them to deny reality.

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