Tuesday 19 January 2016

6 things I've Learned About Denial That Directly Impact Diversity.

Diversity is about our ability to embrace people from varied backgrounds with respect and ease. To do this requires the social skill of viewing things from multiple perspectives so we can accept new ideas and new ways of doing things. In business, where "innovation" has become the word du jour in recent times, and society in which people of diverse backgrounds are more and more in our spaces, our ability to embrace diversity not only makes us mores successful business wise but also happier as individuals. In a working life spanning several decades I have discovered that the human tendency toward living in denial is perhaps the greatest roadblock to our ability to embrace diversity as a way of life and doing business. Here are 6 things about denial, not all bad, that directly impact our ability to embrace diversity.

1. Keep Calm And Carry On

When we live in denial of any reality we numb ourselves to the impact and presence of that reality. A good example is bereavement. When first told of the loss of a loved one, many people just cannot accept that they will never, and I mean never, talk to, laugh with, drink with, hug, hold kiss that person ever again. The reality is so awful we numb ourselves to it and subconsciously deny it’s happened. Not a bad thing if you have to comfort others reeling in shock, organise funerals and the like. You are numb with shock, but crucially are able to function because of the shock.

2. Let’s Face The Music And Dance

Well that’s not entirely true, you actually deny the mood music and dance anyway, because denial enables you to keep up your spirits, even make light of and joke about the awful event that you can’t face. Again, useful in the short term. Who wants dive into a bottomless depression and fall apart? There’s the famous anecdote of the paratroop officer on Arnhem bridge in WWII whose lightly armed men, facing a crack tank brigade, were being torn to shreds in that ill-fated action. He carried an umbrella throughout the fight and explained to his men just before he died, “I’m hopeless with passwords but everyone knows that only an Englishman would be mad enough to carry a brolly onto a battlefield, so our boys would always know I was one of them.” Total denial to the point of surrealism, but he kept his men’s spirits up to the end!

3. Dodgy Logic.

We deny reality by minimisation, rationalisation and fantasising, using their logic to hide from the facts. Minimisation as in “Oh come on its not that bad really is it?” or “well look on the bright side, things are getting better aren’t they?” This is the logic which says, look on the bright side, the terrorists at Charlie Hebdo could have killed 20 or 30 journalists not just 12.

Rationalisation to maintain denial is where explanations for behaviour are made without comment on the value or worth of that behaviour. Saying that “well he behaves like that because he’s never met anyone from that background,” may well be true, but fails to acknowledge that the behaviour itself is hateful or inconsiderate. Rationalisation feels to its victims like an excuse for bad behaviour.

Fantasising, living in a dream world seems bizarre for adults but is very common and is one way of dealing with unpleasant or thorny problems we cannot face. It’s almost as if by repeating the fantasy often and long enough reality will disappear, but of course it never does. Examples in daily life are pretending you did not very publicly snub someone just the day before, yet meet them cheerily at the next occasion. The denial is so effective that the victim asks themselves, “did I imagine what happened yesterday?”, which of course they didn’t. Other ways in which fantasies are maintained is censorship of speech where certain subjects including diversity itself are just not welcome in polite conversation. The unease created is a powerful way in which groups are held in line with the fantasy. If no one is talking about it, then it cannot be happening says the dream.

4. Denial Maintains The Status Quo.

Denial of a situation helps maintain stasis and never addresses the problem. If an issue has been censored from sight, it can’t exist and of course will never be addressed. How can you solve a problem that does not exist?

5. Denial Is The Perfect Growth Medium For Impending Catastrophe.

Any problem facing an individual or a business metastasises and grows when not addressed. The problems can be hidden in plain sight but owing to a collective denial of the issue it can grow to the point it becomes totally toxic to the larger community before it’s addressed. This happens in personal relationships, in businesses and in communities. Couples slowly growing apart,  Group Think  in businesses leading to awful decisions are all examples. Why did our society not see radicalisation  looming over the horizon, given years of social statistics indicating exclusion in certain demographics? Why did it take so long for the authorities to act despite countless allegations of paedophile activity by high placed celebrities like Sir Jimmy Savile . By contrast, diversity and other social challenges which are widely spoken of without fear of censorship (such as women’s rights) see continued progress even though resistance to them is deeply embedded in prevailing cultural values and memes.

6. Denial Does Not Stop By Itself.

People need permission and an enabling environment to stop denying realities that may be toxic to themselves, their businesses and their communities. Individuals and usually those in positions of social, executive or opinion forming authority usually need to take the lead and champion a constructive way of dealing with the issue being denied. On a personal level, each individual has to decide (or not) for themselves to liberate their thinking and way of being. The rewards are plentiful – an enriched life based on reality, and an improved sense of self-worth that is shame and guilt free. Denial of reality holds us all back and limits our lives to a fraction of the possibilities we can help ourselves and others enjoy.

Your comments on Denial are welcome. Can you add insights on the subject?

For coaching in managing diversity email Tet Kofi Media at tet@tekofi.com.

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