Essendon Football Club is in the news for the alleged systemic doping of players. The drugs controversy offers important lessons for organisation leaders.
One element of the controversy that might beggar belief is that the chairman, chief executive and head coach claim to have known nothing. Yet, given human instincts, that is entirely believable – if not pardonable. That’s where the key lesson lies for business leaders.
The dimension of human nature is “confidence before realism”. So strong is our desire to succeed, to avoid loss, to elevate our social standing that we can deny reality. We carry this instinct with us from our years on the savannah and it continues to often drive our behaviour.
In organisational life, denial commonly reveals itself. Here are just a few examples. A leadership teams decides a sexy strategy (such as taking the business offshore) yet denies reality by not ensuring the resources, capability and systems to manage the offshore expansion and risks. A leader falling foul of denial acquires another organisation and finds the integration is harder than expected. A business unit suffers low engagement and high staff attrition, yet senior leaders don’t investigate and continue to believe the rationalising explanations of the unit head.
Harvard professor, Richard Tedlow, is an authority on denial in business. In his book, Denial, he covers why we so often deny reality. He lists four points:
• It can often be too painful to consider the truth so we turn a blind eye.
• The offending information contradicts our assumptions.
• A “group think” mentality, through a conspiracy of silence or a conspiracy of shared illusions.
• Denial can make us feel better: the idea that it can’t be true because if it were, things would be too terrible.
He identifies the warning signs. Take this test.
To what extent do you hear around your leadership table:
• “It doesn’t apply to us.”
• “It’s not a big deal.”
• “It’s not our problem.”
• “It’s never happened in the past.”
• “It can’t happen here.”
• “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
And as a consequence of denial, Tedlow says, we:
• Shoot the messenger.
• Discount the source.
• Denigrate the competition.
• Blissfully carry on regardless.
The lesson for leaders is to seek a balance of confidence and realism. We need to be close enough to the few key subjects that most reflect your accountabilities.
What are the few things that might cause you and your organisation to be on the front page of the newspaper for the wrong reasons and the things that would seriously erode your business? Do you have the controls over these topics and do you really know what’s going on?
If a leader doesn’t reflect on the relevance of the Essendon case for them, it might simply be another case of denial!