How to deal with a boss who denies reality
A behavioral scientist’s guide to tactful truth telling.
‘Tis the season for holiday parties at the office.
While they’re great for building workplace camaraderie and team spirit, when was the last time a colleague—perhaps fueled by too much alcohol—said something so ridiculous that it made your jaw drop? Perhaps a desk mate went into something political, claiming that George Bush is behind 9/11 or that Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya? Or maybe your boss voiced science denialism, arguing that the Earth is flat or the Apollo moon landing was faked?
Just as disconcerting as the conspiracy theorist in your midst is hearing a boss or colleague blatantly deny a business reality, such as evidence that a favored product flopped or a decision was absolutely the wrong one.
So what do you do when someone you work with—even the CEO of the company—tells you something that’s demonstrably false?
Dealing with truth denialism—in business, politics and other life areas—is one of my areas of research, and I recently published a book on the topic. Here are some tips to navigate that Christmas office party or one-on-one with a boss in denial.
It begins at the top
The worst-case scenario is when your chief executive is the one in denial.
A four-year study by LeadershipIQ.com, which provides online leadership seminars, interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 organizations of all sorts that forced out their chief executive officers. It found that almost one quarter of CEOs—23 percent—got fired for denying reality, meaning refusing to recognize negative facts about the organization’s performance.
Other research strongly suggests that the behaviors expressed by CEOs “are felt throughout the organization by impacting the norms that sanction or discourage member behavior and decision making, and the patterns of behavior and interaction among members.”
Together, these findings suggest that organizations where CEOs deny negative facts will have a culture of denying reality throughout the hierarchy. Of course, even when the boss lives in the real world, others in the organization may hold false beliefs.
Professionals at all levels can suffer from the tendency to deny uncomfortable facts in business settings. Scholars term this thinking error the ostrich effect, named after the (mythical) notion that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they see threats.
Forget facts and logic
Our intuition is to confront colleagues suffering from the ostrich effect with the facts.
But research—and common sense, if the colleague is your supervisor—suggests that’s usually the wrong thing to do. That’s because when someone believes something we know to be false, some kind of emotional block is probably at play. A number of factors explain why this happens.
For example, research on confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to our beliefs. So even if sales are far below expectations, a CEO might reject that information in projecting good financial forecasts on the belief that his actions should lead the company to do well.
In another example at a company where I consulted, a manager refused to acknowledge that a person hired directly by her was a bad fit, despite everyone else in the department telling me that the employee was holding back the team. The manager’s behavior likely resulted from what scholars term the sunk cost fallacy, a tendency to double down on past decisions even when an objective assessment shows the decision to be problematic.
In both cases, facing facts would cause the CEO or the manager to feel bad. We often prefer to stick our heads into the sand rather than acknowledge our fault because of our reluctance to experience negative emotions.
Research on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows we tend to dig in our heels when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity, self-worth, worldview or group belonging. In some cases, presenting the facts actually backfires, causing people to develop a stronger attachment to incorrect beliefs. Moreover, we express anger at the person bringing us the message, a phenomenon researchers term “shoot the messenger.”
There are many other mental errors that inhibit business professionals from seeing reality clearly and making good decisions.
Modeling emotions and values
This isn’t to say that emotions are the problem. They are not.
Emotions are fundamentally important to the human experience, and we need both reason and emotion to make good decisions.
So rather than offering facts, your goal should be to show emotional leadership and try to figure out what are the emotional blocks inhibiting your colleague from seeing reality clearly. To do so, use curiosity and subtle questioning to figure out their values and goals and how they shape their perception of self-identity. And focus on deploying the emotional intelligence skill of empathy.
Unfortunately, despite extensive research about the importance of emotional intelligence in professional settings, too many organizations still fail to provide such training.
Once you understand your colleague’s goals and values, try to show you share them.
Research shows doing so is crucial to conveying knowledge effectively in professional environments. Practice mirroring, or rephrasing in your own words the points made by the other person, which demonstrates you understand how they feel and helps build trust.
With a CEO, you might talk about how both of you share a desire for the executive to be a truly strong leader. Try to connect the traits and emotions identified by the CEO to specific examples of his behavior.
And regarding the manager with the problematic employee, I had a conversation about how she saw her current and potential future employees playing a role in the long-term future of the department she ran. I echoed her anxiety about the company’s financial performance and concerns about getting funding for future hires, which gave me an additional clue into why she might be protecting the incompetent employee.
Unclogging emotional blocks
After placing yourself on the same side, building up trust and establishing an emotional connection, move on to the problem at hand: their emotional block.
The key here is to show them, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their current truth denialism undermines their own goals in the long term. It can help to cite a prominent example of a business leader accepting difficult facts to move forward, such as how former Ford CEO Alan Mulally helped save the company through repeated course corrections. Research shows that offering positive reinforcement, without condescension, can be effective with colleagues and bosses alike.
So when you’re at your next office party and encounter a truth-denying colleague, remember these tips and perhaps you won’t have to spend the evening with your face buried in your hands.
Gleb Tsipursky is an Assistant Professor of History of Behavioral Science at The Ohio State University. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.