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How Denial Can Quietly Ruin You

Everywhere we turn these days, we hear people decrying the evils of “fake news.” But what about the fake news we create for ourselves; the subtle denial processes we go through to avoid looking at uncomfortable truths?

In our consulting and coaching practice, we often deal with clients who have successfully evaded the truth about their own circumstances until the inevitable day when they can no longer avoid confronting reality. By then, the situation has often become so exacerbated that the road back is far more difficult than it would have been had they simply dealt with the challenge or discomfort in a healthy way right from the onset.

So why don’t we more easily face the very facts that could prevent us from suffering more dire consequences?

There are many reasons to avoid facing the truth of what’s happening.

  • We may just not want to know.

  • We may be embarrassed to find out.

  • We may hope that if we ignore problems they will go away.

Contemporary psychologists often treat denial as the first stage of a coping cycle. When an unwelcome change occurs (a downturn in business, for example, or a key person who’s just not doing well at their job anymore, or a new promotion that seems beyond our current abilities) such changes are often experienced by our mind as a sort of trauma.

According to world renown psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research, our first impulse of disbelief or denial is the first step in the process of coping. In her now famous “five steps” process, denial, in a healthy mind, slowly rises to greater consciousness.

Over time a subconscious pressure mounts just beneath the surface of overt awareness. This mechanism of coping then involves repression, while the person accumulates the emotional resources to fully face the difficulty or trauma. Once faced, a well-functioning person then deals with the challenge in a stage alternately called acceptance or enlightenment.

We’ve written extensively in our book Thriving in Business and Life and our online course, about the power of a well-crafted vision. But how does one balance the hope and power of a vision or goal, with realities that may be in conflict with what we’re aiming for?

Well, as we also share in our book, vision casting is merely one side of the coin. The other side is facing facts. If we imagine these two as complementary, it’s interesting to muse about which side we spend most of our time with.

Some of us are optimistic by nature. We might shy away from confronting current reality. Others of us keep our noses deep into the details and barely take a visionary breath. Obviously, all of us are unique in our preferences but striking a balance that honors both sides is vitally important.

Here's an important tip that can help. There is a process known as "The Stockdale Paradox" that we describe as the art of “facing the brutal facts of the situation but never losing hope in the end of the story.”

Of course, not all the facts we must face are brutal, but we do tend to avoid fully facing the difficult ones. It’s easier to dream of better days, in the past or hoped for in the future. The Stockdale Paradox puts things in a healthy perspective. In other words, what if we could be totally honest about the way things are, without losing our vision of the way they could be.

Netflix had to face facts in 2011 after they announced: “We will no longer offer a plan that includes both unlimited streaming and DVDs by mail.” Almost a million customers bailed in the following quarter. Their stock plummeted from $300 a share to about $65 by the end of that year. They had to quickly acknowledge the complete failure of their plan and apologize to customers. What brought them back? Creating original dramatic series to stream, like House of Cards. Before long, their stock had skyrocketed up to $400 a share.

This demonstrated a willingness and ability to face facts without getting lost in them. Netflix could have become so involved wrestling with the details of their failure that they might have abandoned their vision, which they describe this way: “Our core strategy is to grow our streaming subscription business domestically and globally. We are continuously improving the customer experience, with a focus on expanding our streaming content.”

They stayed true to their vision and course corrected from failure to success. In fact, they learned from failure and actually leveraged their failure into big success.

What about us?

We may get bad news from time to time like Netflix did, probably not on their scale but certainly discouraging. What’s our response? What we can learn from how they did is that adversity can actually help us improve. This relates to both our performance at work and our personal experience in relationship with family and friends.

Here are some keys for balancing vision with an accurate assessment of reality:

  1. Create an environment around you where it’s safe for people to tell you the truth. When we’re interviewing employees or holding organizational focus groups, the number one reason we find that leaders aren’t aware of problems is because they’re people are afraid to tell them the truth for fear of scorn or reprisal.

  2. Invite specific people to join you as accountability partners. None of us can see our own blind spots. Having colleagues, friends, family, and associates who we’ve created peer accountability with sets up a mechanism where we watch out for each other by telling one another the truth.

  3. Seek out the opinions of people who often disagree with you. We often find that people who have strong visionary skills tend to isolate or chase off people who disagree with them. Not only does this shut off a highly valuable resource of information, it thwarts broader efforts for true buy-in and engagement needed for accomplishing bigger visions when things become challenging.

  4. Live in your vision and visit reality regularly within that visionary context. Allow the power and passion of your vision to keep your context in place and then regularly check in to ensure that what you're facing in the day-to-day is being dealt with appropriately and honestly.

Your Thriving Challenge for the week:

Think of a current situation that you are hopeful will turn out well.

Now, assess the situation, being especially alert for potential problems.

Ask yourself, “What could go wrong?”

Staying strong in your positive vision, jot down a few actions you could take, either to prevent those problems from developing or address them as they are now, before they grow to overwhelming stature.

Experiment with creating a healthy balance between vision and current reality.

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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