Conquer Conflict At Work/Conflict Mis-Styles #5: Denial

Friday, March 10, 2023

Conflict Mis-Styles #5: Denial

Denying responsibility, on the surface, may seem to alleviate stress and restore order and balance in one's life, but over the long-term it creates problems and derails any attempts to resolve conflict in trust.

Conflict Resolution Misstyle: Denial

Denial is the Worst Kind of Lie ... Because it is the Lie You Tell Yourself
~Michelle A. Homme

Today's Conflict Misstyle is the fifth in a series of seven methods of "dealing" with conflict that erode trust and block resolutions.



When you first hear that word, do you imagine all the ways someone has frustrated you because they refuse to take responsibility for their words or actions? Do you see red faced anger and blow ups? Does it feel like an exposed nerve?

It can.

Denial is not always obvious and in many ways, it is woven into the fabric of many organizations as change is met with comments like "we have always done things this way" or "things are not as bad as they seem" (when they really are).

Why do People use Denial?

Pride, Fear, Ignorance.

Change has become the new constant and when our ability to adjust to rapid changes suffers and we start to experience change as a negative. COVID is a prime example. Both among the public and among healthcare workers.

As the frequency of patients admitted to the hospital increased and reports spread on the news, the reality of the situation became too threatening and anxiety provoking for some and it was the driving force behind many protests and rallies against recommended healthcare measures.

Denial is not only seen with world events like COVID, I have seen it show up in many day to day interactions such as with changes in leadership, implementation of new practices or policy or processes, and when operating systems are modified:

  • Individually: When a new nurse asks a senior nurse to observe a skill like intramuscular injections into the gluteus maximus using the ventrogluteal method but the senior nurses insists the new grad does it the old way because it is faster (four quadrants)
  • Unit Initiatives: New electronic charting system is introduced and healthcare providers don't want it so they insist it won't work and continue to use paper charting
  • Leadership Challenges: When a manager convinces themselves that yelling at their workers is the only way to motivate them

Denying responsibility, on the surface, may seem to alleviate stress and restore order and balance in one's life, but over the long-term it creates problems.

How to identify someone who Denies

You may notice this maladaptive technique show up in various ways:

  • ​​People respond with anger, hostility, despair when observed shortcomings are shared
  • ​Avoid acknowledging a difficult situation or problem, i.e. periodically arrive late to work hungover, but insist they don't have a drinking problem
  • ​Downplay the consequences of the issue
  • ​"They are not going to fire me, I am the best nurse they have!"
  • ​They do not take action when issues are brought forward, choosing to sweep it under the rug and pretend there is no issue.

Risks of Denial

Denial does not make problems go away; it creates more.

From decreasing relational satisfaction to increasing sick leave and turnover. Denial can interfere with the quality of work relationships and derail the successful completion of projects.

Problematic denial can occur when someone refuses to face the facts of a situation, or feels vulnerable and out of control. This may be as a result of an illness or injury that prevents them from working to their full capacity or relationships issues that are making work life difficult.

When engaging in conversations with someone whose first strategy is to deny their responsibilities or involvement in a situation, it can cause us to stray off focus and trigger our fight or flight responses. Our attention may move to shutting down and withdrawing from the conversation or we may move toward defending our version of the "truth" and insist they take ownership; leading to escalation of defensive behaviors.

It may feel like a protective mechanism to save face, reputation, or career, but the reality is, if we cannot come back to the conversation and move through it, denial erodes trust, respect, and becomes a barrier for psychological safety in the workplace.

Your Better Leader Moment

Give yourself permission to take some time and think about the situation or get some space between you and the event. It is important to not allow denial to become a barrier to addressing a situation.

If you are the one who may be using denial, or you feel the other party is stuck in denial, use these questions to help you design a new safe conversation starter

  • ​Ask yourself "what might I (or they) be protecting right now?" (pride, fear, ignorance) and how can I reset the conversation so we explore this together?
  • ​Journal to help identify the main issues, your feelings and the thoughts you are telling yourself in the moment. What do you have to change or modify to achieve your true goals?
  • ​Consider the potential negative outcomes of not taking action, what relationships will you lose? What job action might result?

Then when you revisit the conversation, set the stage by sharing your intention and how you want to support them in fulfilling their potential.

Create the psychologically safe space where discernment is your guide and judgement is left outside.

Do you resonate with Misstyle of Denial?

Are you wanting to be a Better Leader and improve your communication skills?

☞☞ Book a Complimentary Coaching Session

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