How to Deal With a Colleague in Denial

Colleague in Denial April 29, 2019 By: Gleb Tsipursky

Professionals at all levels of leadership can suffer from denial—a refusal to see facts clearly in evidence. To communicate effectively with a colleague in denial, you’ll need to rely less on facts and instead act with emotional and social intelligence.

When was the last time a colleague said something that made your jaw drop? As a speaker, consultant, and coach in emotional and social intelligence, I am often asked about how to handle colleagues who deny an obvious reality.

The worst-case scenario is when your chief executive is the one in denial. A four-year study by interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 companies and nonprofits that forced out their CEO. It found that 23 percent of these leaders were fired for denying reality, meaning they refused to recognize negative facts about the organization’s performance.

Other research shows that professionals at all levels can suffer from truth denialism. This thinking error is so common that scholars gave it its own name: the ostrich effect.

Our intuition is to confront colleagues suffering from the ostrich effect with facts. But research suggests that’s usually the wrong thing to do. That’s because when someone believes something that we know to be false, some kind of emotional block is probably at play.

For example, I consulted with an association where the CFO refused to acknowledge that an accountant hired was a bad fit, despite everyone else in the department telling me that the employee was holding back the team. Facing hard facts would cause the CFO to feel bad, and research shows that we often prefer to stick our heads into the sand rather than acknowledge our fault because we instinctually have a reluctance to experience negative emotions.

Break Through With Emotional Intelligence

If you find yourself facing such a situation, rather than offer facts, engage your emotional and social intelligence. Your goal should be to figure out what emotions are preventing your colleague from seeing reality clearly. Then, use curiosity and subtle questioning to identify their goals related to the issue.

Your goal should be to figure out what emotions are preventing your colleague from seeing reality clearly.

Once you understand your colleague’s goals and values, try to show you share them and build up a rapport. Echo any concerns this person shares to cultivate a positive emotional connection.

With the CFO, I had a conversation about how current and future employees play a role in the long-term success of the association. I echoed this person’s anxiety about the organization’s financial performance and concerns about getting funding for future hires, which gave me an additional clue to why the CFO might be protecting the employee.

After placing yourself on the same side, it’s time to move to the problem at hand—the colleague’s emotional block. The key here is to provide information without arousing a defensive or aggressive response. Show how denial undermines the person’s goals in the long term.

With the CFO, I painted a picture of a future where valuable employees—upset about the individual who was hired—might leave the organization. For a more positive perspective, I also highlighted how, in admitting a hiring mistake, the CFO would be perceived as a strong and capable leader.

The CFO eventually agreed that the employee needed to go, and I emphasized the bravery and difficulty of the decision. Why? Research shows that offering positive reinforcement, without condescension, can be effective with colleagues and bosses alike.

The method can be summarized under the acronym EGRIP: emotions, goals, rapport, information, and reinforcement. This technique makes it much easier to address truth denialism among your association colleagues.

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., is CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts in Columbus, Ohio.