In the children's story, The Emperor's New Clothes, a vain emperor hires two people who promise to make him a new suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position.
The emperor cannot see the clothing himself, but pretends he can so as not to appear unfit for his position. Instead of questioning or pointing out the truth, his subordinates do the same, choosing to consciously deny a truth, praising and congratulating the emperor.
In this story, the emperor's men displayed a common behavior -- denial -- that stems from the human need to protect oneself. I believe that this behavior exists in today's project environments, too.
Often in project environments, for example, there is frustration over meetings and discussions that fail to address or acknowledge the proverbial "elephant in the room."
These are the unproductive meetings that review irrelevancies, repetitive issues and problems, but never the actual root cause. Participants stay silent and indirectly endorse the status quo, but then proceed to gather in "safe" groups to discuss real problems and sentiments away from the ears of managers and leaders.
Failing to challenge, speak up or change a situation are all behaviors stemming from denial. Project professionals may choose to deny something out of fear of consequence or feeling embarrassed if deemed wrong. Sometimes it's out of self-preservation because it's easier to be a "yes" person than to challenge the status quo.
Behaviors stemming from denial can also result from over-optimism -- especially when it comes to risk identification. Overly optimistic people tend to deny anything is wrong or can go wrong. Denial can also cause negative consequences for individuals, teams and projects. If left unchecked, denial can become part of an organization's culture.
Project leaders must recognize and reform denial behaviors. Doing so can uncover deficiencies, eliminate blind spots and help an organization become more efficient and competitive. By removing the root causes for denial, individuals will align their interests and act in favor of the team, project and organization.
In my opinion, the best way to do this on your project team is to lead by example.
Set standards by being decisive in day-to-day management. Implement and insist on good, documented work processes. Listen and understand colleagues, and work with the differences and opinions. Individuals on the project team should know what is expected of them and be made to feel valued, secure and included.
Tell the truth about a situation, even if it is bad news. This encourages others reporting to you to do the same. Create a culture that encourages and rewards team members to flag issues and ask questions because problems that are visible stand a better chance of getting resolved.
Do you agree that denial behavior can be a problem in the project environment? How do you root out the negative effects of denial behavior?