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Dismissal, denial and disbelief – part 2

For part 1 of this post read “Dismissal

While dismissal is an easy way to bypass dissent at project start up, as work progresses physical manifestations of the underlying problems start to appear. Senior Managers who had dismissed the team’s original concerns often find themselves facing information that shows a worry trend. In a rational world you would think that managers would then take action to address the concerns, but study of failed projects shows that this is often not the case. Instead, in an escalation of the dismissal tactics described in part 1 of this post, the denial stage starts to kick in.

While dismissal deals with dissenting opinions, denial is needed when evidence of problems begins to appear. Maybe the data is wrong, maybe we’ll catch up later, or maybe, if we ignore the problem it will somehow resolve itself. Denial is a natural part of human behaviour and we’ve all found ways to interpret information and events such that they perpetuate our view of the world.

At a deeper level denial can be triggered by a number of things;

  1. An unwillingness to admit a prior error
  2. The desire to avoid public loss of face
  3. Fear that the admission of an earlier mistake will have negative career consequences
  4. The desire to avoid having to pass bad news up the chain of command

Whatever the cause the consequences can be dire. As many studies have shown the longer an issue goes unresolved, the higher the cost to resolve the problem becomes. Denial may provide a sense of temporary relief, but in the long run the continued failure to address the project’s fundamental problems digs an ever deeper hole into which the project will plunge.

The key to avoiding denial lies in separating our own sense of personal worth from the project’s status. Often those who are in denial are doing so because they identify themselves with the success or failure of the project. As I’ve advised many people over the years, you are not your project status and your project status is not you. You need to have a dispassionate view of your project and focus on accurately assessing information. Only then are we able to make the rational decisions that can correct course and set the project on the road to success.

In next week’s post we’ll look at the final stage of this pattern of behaviour, the Disbelief stage. Remarkably projects that are in undeniable distress often still continue forward!!

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