On Denial

As the year turns and I find myself reflect­ing about my work, what comes for­ward is the whole dynam­ic of denial by all of us in lead­er­ship roles and posi­tions. By denial I mean that we all too eas­i­ly push away uncom­fort­able or unac­cept­able truths. We push them away in a vari­ety of ways. I know I am doing it most when I feel offend­ed by feed­back some­one else has giv­en me, and I see this pat­tern over and over again in my work with client lead­ers. This is right at the core of the pat­terns in orga­ni­za­tions around the fear of speak­ing up. The receiv­er, a boss or col­league or report, becomes offend­ed and express­es frus­tra­tion or anger with the infor­ma­tion that has been brought for­ward. Sud­den­ly the rela­tion­ship with the receiv­er is at risk and judg­ments are being made about the mes­sen­ger. The sense of offense, not nec­es­sar­i­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the mes­sen­ger direct­ly, then leaks into inter­ac­tions, under­min­ing them in more or less overt ways. Per­son­al­ly, I am begin­ning to notice these moments for myself and pay­ing more atten­tion to them. They are telling me I need to lis­ten rather than defend, calm down rather than but­ton up the armor, but the cycles and habits of emo­tion­al reac­tion and judg­ment can be awful­ly dif­fi­cult to break. Put the force of orga­ni­za­tion­al pow­er (whether “up” the sys­tem, side­ways or down) behind these neg­a­tive reac­tions and we have every­thing we need for retal­i­a­tion to occur, real or perceptual.


Recent­ly, I was asked to make a keynote pre­sen­ta­tion at a mid­west­ern uni­ver­si­ty about what it would take for an orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture to be strong enough to sus­tain the truth. It was a won­der­ful top­ic, dri­ving me to revis­it every­thing I thought I knew about integri­ty. I came up with three principles:

1. Accept feed­back with­out tak­ing offense.
2. Speak up about the tough top­ics even before trust is present.
3. Real­ly care about oth­er peo­ple, how they feel and what hap­pens to them.

There is too much to say about each of these points in a sin­gle post, so I’ll only share the head­lines. Num­ber one is the abil­i­ty to stop, even when aggra­vat­ed or insult­ed, to lis­ten. Being aggra­vat­ed or insult­ed by data about one’s lead­er­ship and what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing is to me the num­ber one issue, caus­ing denial and mis­trust in rela­tion­ships — flip sides of the same coin, and enor­mous emo­tion­al waste. Num­ber two is about safe­ty. Peo­ple want to bring for­ward their mes­sages in an envi­ron­ment of trust. Yet the envi­ron­ment of trust is cre­at­ed by peo­ple tak­ing the risk to speak up even when trust is not yet present. Wait­ing for an envi­ron­ment of trust to be cre­at­ed by oth­ers is a co-depen­dent posi­tion keep­ing an orga­ni­za­tion or team stuck. You must be able to go first if you want to change things. Final­ly, real­ly car­ing about peo­ple means that there are no tricks. You can’t cre­ate an orga­ni­za­tion able to sus­tain the truth if you are think­ing “man­age­ment tech­nique” or hold­ing onto a neg­a­tive view of your receiv­er. No one hears truth very well if they also sense they are not cared about or are being attacked. Effec­tive mes­sen­gers sur­round their mes­sages with gen­uine empathy. 

The bot­tom line is you can’t beat peo­ple into liv­ing with truth. We are so con­struct­ed as to have infi­nite capac­i­ty to hold onto what we know and believe is so. For every dif­fi­cult fact there is a coun­ter­vail­ing fan­ta­sy that pro­tects us from its accep­tance, and only when we are ready to exam­ine our own fan­tasies do we begin to cre­ate the real capac­i­ty to hold truth. Truth and com­pas­sion — for self, for oth­ers — are inevitably linked and are both nec­es­sary ingre­di­ents for wholeness.

As for my keynote, I received pos­i­tive feed­back for sug­gest­ing that real­ly all three of these pieces depend on a spir­i­tu­al vision. You can’t lead very effec­tive­ly if you don’t allow the spir­i­tu­al aspect of your per­son­al­i­ty to bring for­ward its essence. Truth and care are con­tained with­in this essence insep­a­ra­bly. This isn’t about reli­gion, but about the quest to be ful­ly human, which is what I believe caus­es a leader to be a leader. We are intrin­si­cal­ly inspired by this quest when we see it in some­one because ulti­mate­ly it touch­es and heals the wounds of own past expe­ri­ences of inhumanity.

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  • Dan: thanks for your year-start con­tri­bu­tion! Sus­tain­ing the truth in an orga­ni­za­tion — and/or an indi­vid­ual — is an impor­tant top­ic, and I’m inspired by your insights into the issue(s).

    I found myself think­ing “stop. look. lis­ten.” as I read your three bul­lets. These are not direct­ly aligned with your three points, but seem relat­ed. Per­haps “lis­ten. speak. care.” would be a more accu­rate syn­op­sis … though on that lev­el, I find myself want­i­ng to put “care” first.

    Speak­ing out in a low trust work envi­ron­ment requires a com­mit­ment to the truth that is stronger than a com­mit­ment to the job. “Going first” may well lead to being the first to go (out the door).

    I’ve been read­ing David Whyte’s book, The Heart Aroused: Poet­ry and the Preser­va­tion of Soul in Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca, where he devotes a chap­ter to “Fire in the Voice: Speak­ing Out At Work”. He starts off the chap­ter describ­ing a sit­u­a­tion in which a CEO pro­pos­es a plan to his key exec­u­tives, solic­it­ing their feed­back (rat­ing it on a scale of one to ten) in a way that makes it clear that he wants to hear a unan­i­mous round of “tens”. One of the peo­ple at the meet­ing wants to say “zero”, but after strug­gling might­i­ly with his com­mit­ment to the truth vs. job secu­ri­ty, instead meek­i­ly says “ten”.

    Whyte then goes on to say that hav­ing com­pas­sion for the mouse — the part of us that is not [yet] coura­geous enough to speak out — helps set the stage for even­tu­al­ly embrac­ing our coura­geous inner lion … and to tem­per that lion’s future expres­sions in ways that are less like­ly to incite fear in oth­ers. This is very much in align­ment with your artic­u­la­tion of the inter­re­lat­ed­ness of truth and compassion.

    In a low trust envi­ron­ment, it may be safer to speak out about small­er things — giv­ing voice to the inner mouse — which may, in turn, give implic­it per­mis­sion to oth­ers to also speak out about small things (as you not­ed, “trust is cre­at­ed by peo­ple tak­ing the risk to speak up”). One might there­by incre­men­tal­ly build a plat­form of trust that even­tu­al­ly sup­ports more coura­geous acts of speech.

    Thanks for speak­ing out on this issue with truth and compassion!

  • Thanks, Joe. I know the sto­ry from David Whyte’s book and have always appre­ci­at­ed it. The point for me is that wait­ing for some­one else to say “zero” so that then I am free to speak up means that the envi­ron­ment stays unsafe for all. This is the place where the spir­i­tu­al part of us is drawn upon most acute­ly, and we make a choice, just as in Whyte’s tale. That we fail to go first is indeed some­thing to reflect upon and show com­pas­sion for, to our­selves and oth­ers. When I have observed some­one “say zero” effec­tive­ly in such an envi­ron­ment it isn’t with the voice of a lion at all, or a mouse, but one char­i­ta­bly and pos­i­tive­ly dis­posed, that accounts for the risk but does­n’t let that get in the way. If it has to be lion or mouse, then the risk remains for every­one. But when the truth is held with the undis­turbed con­fi­dence of a but­ter­fly­’s wing, the ten­sion for the entire scene can drop and the sense of inner spir­i­tu­al safe­ty of one per­son can bring an out­er safe­ty for oth­ers. Lat­er, reflect­ing, we say that the per­son who spoke up was inten­tion­al­ly act­ing as a leader. But that may be only a pro­jec­tion. All that hap­pened was sim­ply the flight of the butterfly.

  • I love the metaphor of “the undis­turbed con­fi­dence of the but­ter­fly­’s wing” … which in turn invokes, for me, an image of the movie “The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly” — which I have not seen (only read about, but that won’t stop me from com­ment­ing a bit fur­ther on the link­age). In the movie, a for­mer fash­ion mag­a­zine edi­tor suf­fers a stroke that leaves him with locked-in syn­drome, unable to com­mu­ni­cate except through blink­ing one eye. The “div­ing bell” is a metaphor for this con­di­tion … but not hav­ing seen the movie yet, I don’t know what the “but­ter­fly” rep­re­sents. Com­ing back to your post, I sus­pect we all suf­fer from some lev­el of self-imposed locked-in syn­drome … and that the metaphor of “the undis­turbed con­fi­dence of a but­ter­fly­’s wing” may rep­re­sent a way to break out.

  • Thank you for this excel­lent piece of think­ing and writ­ing — par­tic­u­lar­ly elo­quent on the endur­ing human chal­lenge in the penul­ti­mate para­graph. I too loved the but­ter­fly wing image (while I would also hope lions and mice could have their say too!)

  • Andrew

    Nice to hear from you. And yes, in a per­fect world we all would stop and lis­ten, even if the voice is a roar or a squeak. There is so much to say here about how the roar and squeak can trig­ger a receiv­er in such a way that it actu­al­ly rein­forces that per­son­’s capac­i­ty for denial. It’s a fab­u­lous thing in the moment when the but­ter­fly final­ly shows up!

    Best to you and thanks again for stop­ping by.

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