What To Do When Leadership Is In Denial: Try These 3 Techniques

In the midst of this national public health crisis, experts and pundits continue to scratch their heads at the seemingly slow federal response. Instead of responding with the urgency and force that one would expect, President Trump has arguably been in a state of denial about the seriousness of the pandemic for much of the crisis. While he did stop travel from China during the first few critical weeks, his subsequent actions arguably didn’t reflect the urgency and seriousness of a world leader fighting a global pandemic. Just a few of his most concerning actions include referring to virus reporting as the “Democrats’ new hoax”, refusing to issue a federal stay at home order while public health officials urged drastic social distancing, insisting that individual states find their own supplies as they desperately sought federal assistance, comparing COVID-19 to the flu, and hesitating to fully utilize the Defense Production Act. In more recent weeks, President Trump’s tone has arguably shifted to better reflect the seriousness of the pandemic – he’s provided additional supplies to New York City and other hot spots, walked back the hoax comments, reinforced that COVID-19 “is not the flu” and admitted that models project an estimated 100,000 – 240,000 American deaths. Even still, it does seem that the public health experts have had an uphill battle getting him to consistently take actions and make decisions primarily grounded in science, data and overall public health interests.

Unfortunately, this “uphill battle” of trying to combat leadership denial isn’t exclusive to pandemics, public health or the government. To the contrary many every day professionals face that same arduous challenge – getting their “ostrich leader” to get their head out of the sand, see what everyone else is seeing and take action! For many professionals it’s a suffocating feeling to watch the organization suffer because leadership is in denial. The question then becomes…what can you do?

Admittedly, this is a sticky situation. There is a chain of command for a reason, and it’s definitely not the role of staff/direct reports to override leadership choices. At the end of the day (with the exception of extreme situations), what the boss says goes and if leadership chooses to deny reality to the chagrin of others, that’s their choice. However, this doesn’t mean that staff shouldn’t make any attempt to shed additional light and/or influence that leader’s thinking. After all, leaders are not perfect and the best leaders actually appreciate those willing to stick their neck out and gently push back or tell the boss the ugly truth for the betterment of the overall organization. If you haven’t worked with an ostrich leader, you most likely will at some point in your career, so let’s examine a few techniques that can help when you find yourself in such a situation.

Technique #1 – Show Them the Data

One of my first district managers had a sign on his desk that read, “In God we trust…All others bring data.” When people came to him pleading for more resources, money or time, he wasn’t as interested in their opinions as he was interested in the facts. Indeed, facts are typically quite compelling so bring data, and then present it in a persuasive way. Don’t just talk about the data – they might forget what was said as soon as the phone rings or their next meeting starts. Instead, make sure the most critical data are prominently written and/or displayed so the facts are staring them in the face, and your points become hard to ignore. You don’t have to overtly contradict the leader, but you can certainly give them the data and let them make their own decision.

Technique #2 – Ask Leading Questions

Early on in my facilitation training, I learned that one of the best ways to push back on leadership is to turn your statement into a question. Indeed, a question is more deferential and lands differently on the ear. “Jim, just wondering – do you think relying on a single vendor might increase our risk if their promised due dates slip for some reason?” just sounds better than “Jim, I know you like that vendor, but we really need to diversify to minimize risk.” Leading questions plant a seed. They cause the leader to reflect on what you’ve proposed. Even if the leader doesn’t change their mind in that moment, they will more than likely keep thinking about that question for days to come.

Technique #3 – Point Out Potential Consequences

Another very effective technique is painting a vivid picture of the worst-case scenario. This might be considered a last resort, but it can be quite effective. Virtually, every leader will insist that they “want good news soon and bad news sooner.” They don’t want to find out about the significant risk after it’s too late. Of course, they’d rather know while they still have a chance to avoid all out calamity, and what will often jolt their head out of the sand is getting a vivid picture of what the worst case might look like. No, it’s not easy to speak truth to power, so select your wording carefully. It might sound like this. “Lynn, of course, I’m happy to support whatever your final decision might be and you certainly have more experience than I, but I just want to be sure I’m keeping you in the loop and giving you all the information. Our developers have determined that if the technology isn’t updated this year, the app could completely malfunction and might expose all sensitive customer information.”

The truth is that techniques won’t always work and ultimately you can’t (nor should you) force a leader to open their eyes and react with urgency. Each of us has to make our own choice when faced with an ostrich leader. At times, we may try to influence their thinking. Other times the issue may not be important enough to require intervention, or we may eventually come to agree with their approach. In rare cases we may decide that working for an ostrich leader is untenable and therefore choose to seek a healthier work environment. Either way, don’t feel helpless. You may not be able to control the situation, but there are certainly techniques that can be quite effective. Ultimately, you always have a choice.