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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