ostrich head in sandIt’s hardly news that men hate going to the doctor.

Perhaps it’s handing over the €50, the fact that some men are programmed to be tough or even a secret fear of needles (Trypanophobia).  Who knows? But, when it comes to medical issues, most men can be found hiding in a dark corner called avoidance.  When avoidance (the behavioural form of denial) occurs in the business arena, the results are equally unhealthy.

Personal Health:

Now, normally I don’t talk about my own health at all.  But, bear with me on this one. About 2 years ago I got a weird spike in a liver function reading. Despite numerous medical & hospital visits to a range of different specialists, no-one was able to diagnose the problem. So I made a judgment call to simply ignore it. Yes, when it comes to medical avoidance, I am a gold medalist. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had to pull over to the side of the road because of a shooting pain in my leg.  It was a complete showstopper. It happened again that night and about 10 times over the next few days. That’s the time when you really appreciate a loving partner. The exact quote from my wife, Linda was: “Just shut up, I’m not listening to you moaning about it” (it’s so sad that she missed her calling as a Hospice Nurse). I had to head back to the GP for medical expertise and a double dose of empathy. On the way over I was trying to figure out if I’d done anything ‘different’ in recent weeks that might have caused the problem e.g. taken up 1-legged Javelin throwing from a trampoline. I was also trying to figure out exactly what people would be saying about me at the funeral. The only thing ‘new’ in my life was buying a (heavy) electric guitar. Turns out that was the culprit (I’d trapped a nerve in my back).  The GP informed me that it was the first case of ‘Guitar Arse’ he’d ever come across. I was elated. Firstly, because the condition is curable. Secondly, single-handedly inventing a new medical condition will be part of my legacy – something the kids can be proud of (albeit ‘Guitar Arse’ doesn’t sound quite as scientific as, say, Lorenzo’s Oil).

Coping Pattern:

Within organizations, when individuals sense they are underperforming or that something is going wrong, the fear that they will be exposed often stops them from addressing this. It’s reminiscent of the lyrics of a country and western song when Pam Tills sings: “Just call me Cleopatra, ‘cause I’m the Queen of denial.”  The psychology which underpins this is as follows: Denial is actually an unconscious coping pattern that helps block out change and a fear of the unknown. In the face of ambiguity, we focus on things that we can control. And, paradoxically ‘denial’  disproportionately affects individuals and companies that are doing well. For example,  new management teamsare great at ‘pinning the tail on the ousted donkeys’ (blaming past executive teams), but are seldom as good at facing up to their own mistakes. In many organizations, business mistakes are buried fast and deep; post mortems are a tool for medics, but are seldom used by executives.

Organizational Learning: 

This is not a new idea. 40+ years ago, Chris Argyris wrote about ‘Double Loop Learning’ (understanding root causes). His thesis =  most organizations are programmed to overcome a crisis and quickly move on. Yet, while they focus on tomorrow, they often lack a rere view mirror, something which is common in  many areas of life.  Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history”.

Mega Initiatives:

One quite subtle way to practice denial is to have numerous initiatives underway. Being outwardly busy (“With the amount of stuff going on here, I haven’t time to go to the toilet”) allows executives to avoid the central problem.  The very essence of denial is not facing up to the most difficult issue – the so-called elephant in the room. Fuzzy strategy, conflicting priorities, a laissez faire leadership style, an untalented top team, politicking across functions. Take your pick. Any issue can be avoided if the senior team don’t have an appetite to square up to this.

Truth Telling:

In this scenario, someone has to table the awkward issues. It follows thatthe role of a consultant is to ‘speak truth to power’.  If a consultant provides 100% support, they are taking the Queens shilling and simply become part of the problem. Yet consultants who see their role as being a permanent opposition to the leadership team are not usually around long enough to make a difference. 20 years ago one senior executive in a large insurance company said to me: “I have seen smarter consultants than you come and go here” (and she was dead right). That particular organization had zero appetite to address the BIG issues and I was too naïve to understand this.   Perhaps the core consulting skill is to know when to be friend (building confidence) and when to be foe i.e. not so focused on the next invoice that you are afraid to speak up.

We all have to confront denial – in ourselves and in our organizations. From a consulting perspective, the trick is to figure out how to do this skillfully without getting yourself dragged around the back of the factory and shot. The core management skill is knowing when to stop and listen


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