What does a Freelance consultant do when a client refuses to believe what should be an undeniable fact and instead chooses to believe something that is obviously incorrect? When a client denies or ignores the reality of circumstances in his/her organization—like a strategy that’s not producing the desired outcome or a decision that’s caused a problem to go from bad to worse—can an external consultant (or subordinate employee) tactfully open the boss’ eyes? Maybe. But before you try, examine the alternate reality in which some of us will occasionally choose to live.
In a four-year study conducted by LeadershipIQ, a company that provides online leadership development seminars, 1,087 board members at 286 organizations that had ousted their CEOs were interviewed. In 23% of the organizations surveyed, the dismissed CEOs failed to acknowledge, and therefore act upon, adverse business conditions or other obvious threats to the organization and that lapse was the pivotal factor in his/her demise. In other words, those CEOs chose to deny reality and paid the price.
Business and other leaders, like everyone else, might at times choose to deny or ignore uncomfortable truths, a behavioral trait known as the ostrich effect, where the birds are said to hide their heads in the sand when faced with a threat (untrue, BTW). There are those people who prefer to see the bright side because they are convinced that positive thinking brings about positive results. Every once in a while, that is true.
For the resolutely rose-colored glasses crowd, however, you may have noticed that presenting accurate information is often ineffective because their denial is rooted in misplaced emotion. With this group, facts do not win arguments.
There are a number of paths that might lead to faulty logic that prevents one from seeing and responding to reality. The phenomenon of confirmation bias demonstrates that we humans have a tendency to seek out and interpret data and other information that is in line with our belief systems. The sunk cost fallacy essentially means that one has so heavily invested in the truism of a particular decision’s outcome that there will be no backing down now.
In the backfire effect, we elect to dig in our heels when presented with facts that call into question the value of our self-worth, identity, worldview, or group belonging. In many cases, presenting those facts causes the person to cling even more tightly to his/her incorrect or unsustainable beliefs.
Unfortunately, those who tell the truth to someone who is mired in denial, and most likely engaging in one of the above behavioral patterns, risk triggering an attack by the denier, in the classic shoot the messenger face-saving mechanism. In this scenario, the realist cannot win because according to behavioral scientists, denial is more about identity than information.
Now to get back to the client we’re trying to persuade to do one thing or another—what can one do when demonstrable facts are not only insufficient, but are also capable of imploding your valuable relationship? Ohio State University behavioral scientist Gleb Tsipursky recommends that we sidestep a potential showdown by asking a few delicately phrased questions that might reveal the emotion behind the denial and idealy, allow the denier to back away from his/her original stance and save face as this occurs.
While it may have already become apparent that you hold another viewpoint on the matter, your first objective is to portray yourself as trustworthy and not an enemy. Say what you can to convey to your denier that you share his/her core values and concerns. Rephrasing what that person has said could be useful, to demonstrate that you understand and (perhaps) agree with what is most meaningful to him/her.
Your second objective is to gently reveal to the denier that his/her position is actually in conflict with his/her core values and/or goals. This will take a silver tongue, I admit. You might be able to get the ball rolling by noting that the denier’s position is quite understandable, based on the available information at the time, or as a result of his/her experiences.
If you can follow that up with an example of when and how someone who is known to the denier subsequently changed his/her opinion or practices on a particular matter, so much the better. You want to make it safe for the denier to make a tectonic shift and show him/her how to do it painlessly. Revealing that others sometimes do so is validating.
Finally, reconfirm -your denial prone client’s goals and based on what the two of you now agree upon, cobble together a solution that the client can accept. Since the client will substantively participant in the process, buy-in will be achieved and you will emerge with a signed contract.
Thanks for reading,
Image: The Denial of St. Peter Gerard Seghers, circa 1623 Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art