If you are a people manager, it helps if  you know a thing or two about psychology. You need to know human behaviors, biases, why people react in specific ways, personality types and how to read what is not explicitly said. How to read what the other person thinks, and how to read what the other person wants – is an art that takes time, observation skills and diligent practice to master.

Denial is a widely known defense mechanism. Human beings use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt, which arises because we feel threatened by something or someone. Denial is not equal to refusal. A refusal is a decision that has already been made and the mind has moved on to other things. Denial is a mindset that stays there and sinks in.Denial is more like “I don’t think I should ….” compared to refusal which is  “I will not do something”.

Notice the difference? In denial there is a “think”.

The subject thinks in a certain way but has not come to a conclusion and is most likely contemplating inside, however, the subject will continue to portray it as a refusal in the outside in his/her interactions. Denial involves a refusal to accept reality, thus blocking external events from awareness.

Example of A Denial – John is not prepared for his exams. He knows that if he does not study well, he will not get admission in the university. However, John hesitates to explore that he can actually improve his scores if he puts in a little bit extra effort each day. He is telling himself a negative story that studying one extra hour each day is not going to make it any better. He is contemplating without any data or solid evidence – he is just telling himself a story which is not at all a reality and not proven. John is in denial.

A woman in denial

Why do people go into Denial?

There can be many reasons why specific individuals go into Denial mode. As mentioned in the Kubler Ross model of grief, denial is the first stage towards grief, depression and a state of mental trauma.

5 stages of grief
Some of the reasons are given below

  • When someone is not happy with their achievements at work, they anticipated much more but they are nowhere close to what they thought they would be.
  • When there is a life threatning event – big accident, long term disease.
  • Heartbreak or the loss of a relationship.
  • Events or action which malign someone’s reputation and self esteem at work.
  • Job loss, devastating loss in business, crestfallen and all hopes shattered.
  • Poor financial condition, debt, loans – a mountain of pressure on their head.
  • Lack of self confidence because of previous experiences and failures. A poor self image in a person’s own mind causes them to frequently go into Denial when they are given a difficult assignment.
  • When someone feel they are constantly judged / checked upon and judged unfairly based on a set of parameters that do not compltely define them.
  • Some sort of discrimination or unfair treatment in their own books or school of thought.
  • Lack of a partner or the absense of a regular/healthy sexual life. This is purely physiological in nature and it affects a person’s brain to be in the right spot to think clearly under stressful circumstances.
  •  Lack of meaningful relationships, loneliness and vagabondism.

Some symptoms of Denial You can Look For

Here are some symptoms to look for

  • If someone is in denial, they will resort to “silence” or “violence”. They will suddenly burst out and then go into “silence” for some time or vice versa.
  • They will refrain from eye contact, honest smiling and express positive emotions willingly. That does not mean that the person will not smile. But they will not smile willingly or laugh willingly. If you crack a joke, they will definitely join in and participiate. However, they will seldom initiate it or try to involve you from their side.
  • They will avoid talking about the issue at hand and will try to escape a healthy discussion around it. They will either deflect conversations or try to negotiate to discuss it some other time.
  • They will almost never acknowledge the issues at their end.
  • They will blame others – either people, situations, decisions or specific events.
  • They will frequently bring evidence that supports their point and they will not consider any rational objections to it.
  • They will be a “No” person over a “Yes” person. You will constantly hear “No”, “But”, “However”, “Because” “I don’t agree”, “Although” and similar words in conversations.

How to validate if an employee is in denial

If all of the above observations aren’t sufficient and you are still in doubt, here is a simple test you can put to use.

Give the subject a difficult task. You know they will not do it. That’s okay, the goal is not to get the job done. The goal is to see what that person is going to do about it and their approach to it, and how they come out of the situation and how they decide to tackle it.

If the person is in denial, they will immediately have arguments or pointers why it should not be done, cannot be done, ought not be done, why it’s unfair, why it’s unreasonable, why it’s a waste of time and everything under the sun.

Hear it all in, let them speak and let them vacate their minds.

Now wait for a week or two. Most likely, the person will never follow up with you and try to offer an alternative solution or re-open the discussion. They will avoid it and steer away from it. They will bring up other discussions to establish that the original one is dissolved and no longer relevant or necesary.

Once the dust settles down, give them a relatively easier thing to do. Something within their range of capacity and something you are confident they can easily get it done without much effort or trouble. If the person is in denial, they will still try to resist it or throw up tantrums. They will give you a reason with a clause in it and they will not fully acknowledge what you told them to do. They will acknowledge to some extent, but it will usually come with a clause or condition. There will not be complete co-operation and you will see some amount of resistance, even though the task is relatively easier and within their grip.

What to do when the employee is in denial

It depends. There is no one size fits all answer to the above. It depends from situation to situation and context to context.

However, there are a few things managers need to do with employees who are in denial.

First and foremost, establish psychological security. Make them believe that you are not a threat and you are on their side. Try to talk the person through. Be genuinely interested in the person and try to understand where they are coming from. You have to be genuine. If you are not genuinely interested, that person will not open up and will not speak their mind. It will take time for that person to completely subjugate their negative emotions and come under your positive influence, you have to hold your nerve until that point.

Address their fears. Acknowledge their concerns and empathisize with their state of mind.

Trust me, it’s not east. It’s extremely hard to establish psychological security in someone’s mind who is already in denial.

I remember an incident wherein I was struggling for months with a team member and she was in complete denial. I tried every trick in the book but nothing was working, the situation went from bad to worse. But then I changed my approach and I started having long conversations with her. It didn’t happen overnight, it happened very slowly, it slowly built up from 5 minutes, to 10 mins, to half an hour and then an hour.

Once I had given her enough psychological security, understood her side of the story, acknowledged the concerns and understood where she is coming from, things became much more easier. It took a while to convert the person from a “denial” state to “acceptance” state.

Also, remember that nobody can convert the person except themselves. You can’t do it for them, you can help them along the way but you cannot change the person’s mindset. It’s something they have to do – you can only help them in that journey.