We all deal differently with setbacks and disappointments. But it’s a lot easier to work with people who face the reality of the experience and figure out straightforward, practical ways to bring their teams and organizations forward.
In contrast, leaders and colleagues who are perceived as living in a fantasy world because they don’t adjust well — particularly to real-world events that challenge their self-images or make them look less successful than the reputation or brands they’ve cultivated for themselves — often end up scorned by their teammates and colleagues.
The idea of doubling down on a falsity or flawed approach happens with some regularity, particularly in organizations where the truth is not prized — or if there are penalties for mistakes rather than support for experimentation and the reflection and recovery that’s necessary when lessons are learned by trial and error.
Coming to Terms with the Fact of Failure
Lately, we’ve been seeing a terrible version of this flawed approach to reality in U.S. national politics with President Trump’s refusal to accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election. Although he has effectively been forced to acknowledge that Biden will, in fact, be inaugurated and become the next president, he remains unwilling or incapable of acknowledging that he lost the election legitimately and significantly.
President Trump’s rejection of the facts means that a tremendous amount of fiction and falsehood are being touted by him and his supporters — many of whom have the intellect and responsibility to know and do better.
The Damage Caused by Self-Protection
We’ve all worked with people who can’t tolerate being mistaken, wrong, or found wanting. It’s not that they’re uncomfortable with it or saddened or angered by it, as anyone might be. They truly can’t tolerate or accept the experience of the failure, so they act as if it never happened. By denying the truth, they preserve their fragile self-image.
Unfortunately, denying the truth necessitates twisting it or hiding it to keep others from seeing it. Frequently it also means blaming others or trying to shift responsibility post facto. Depending on the level of power, authority, status, and influence that the self-protective individual has, they can require, seduce, or force others into doing things that are bad for the organization as a whole, while they advance their own interests.
This means that all future actions and decisions are based on false information — including lies of omission and outright falsehoods meant to divert people away from the original fact of the failure. For as long as it takes for people to acknowledge the truth, terrible damage can be done on both small and large matters.
Taking the Long View
Contrast this willingness to effectively burn down the house with the strategic focus, long-term view, and quiet diligence of Stacey Abrams. When she lost her race for governor in Georgia in 2018, she did not fight or deny the result — despite the fact that the Georgia Secretary of State had overseen his own election and many tactics of voter suppression were documented, including thousands of voters being thrown off the election rolls. Abrams accepted her loss and planned strategically for the future, joining with other Black women and civic and political organizations to implement and achieve a shift in the nature of the electorate through legal means.
Doing Your Own Reality Check
Who would you rather be associated with and have on your team? Someone who faces reality, acknowledges the truth, licks their wounds, and moves on undeterred? Or someone who propagates ever-larger lies to avoid dealing with painful truths?
If you know there are fictional versions of reality circulating through your organization today, bring some objectivity and fact-finding to the picture promptly so that everyone can adjust. Your results will be better, and you’ll be more likely to retain and engage a high caliber of employees.