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Denial in the Project Environment

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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?


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Thanks Saira Karim for the presentation. I completely agree that denial behavior can be a problem in the project environment and its even more dangerous in the Quality Assurance team because most team members tend to say "it can be used or its alright" when their friends and colleagues are involved in other not to hurt them.

This ofcourse impacts on project quality and might generate the risk of rework if an external QA/QC team cross checks the work. In developing countries where budgets are considerably slim, the cost of rework might actually make it impossible to complete the project.

Thanks for your post Saira. I like your example.

In The Emperor's New Clothes, the two people tasked with making the new clothes are in effect the Project Team while the Emperor is the Client. Unfortunately, it is true that Project Teams sometimes deceive the Client regarding the value of the project they are executing. Though they are rarely as deliberately mischievous as these two people.

Project Teams often have a lot invested in a project and want it to progress. This sometimes causes them to ignore the good reasons why the project should not progress.

As in the example, this can end up being very embarrassing.

Denial behavior is indeed a big problem in a project environment. One of the root causes I have noticed in my PM life is trying to please the project sponsor who would not want to listen to the reality of the project status. I have been on a project whereby the sponsor was not interested in listening to the negative challenges the project was facing. He always want to hear the positive side only. The Project Lead then would always be looking for a mild way of softening the negative challenges. Sometime the problem is underestimated not because the PM did not know the magnitude but because he didn't want it to look like there was a problem until the reality struck. This I consider as denial of the reality behavior.

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