Denise Kohnke


The CEO Guide to Denial

“Delay is the deadliest form of denial.”  

– C. Northcote Parkinson (who famously wrote, “Work expands so as to fill the available time for its completion.”) 


Everyone defaults to denial at some point. It’s the brain’s way of lining up all of our implicit biases and testing them against harsh realities. Ironically, it’s because we’re trying to make sense of things with mental shortcuts. 

Now, in the time of COVID-19, as we all feel the need to move fast, CEOs might want to be especially mindful of biases, especially the biases that support denial and impede invention during crisis. 

How does this bag of denial-based biases impact the COVID-19 CEO right now? Let’s pick some common thoughts CEOs might be communicating and break down their underlying biases:  


Availability heuristic > optimism bias 

CEO says:   “We just got a couple of orders in, so things are turning.” 

The availability heuristic is a game your mind plays to take readily available information and project a simple judgement that feeds your own personal bucket of truth. Its digital counterpart would be an algorithm that picks up your reading preferences and delivers a “recommended for you” list of articles (which often begets confirmation bias because you’re only being offered information you already believe to be true). While it’s true that “getting a few orders” might be the beginning of a trend, it is not, on its own, predictive under COVID-19 variables. Hindsight, here, might be cruelly predictive of failure to persevere.

Optimism bias is essential for survival, athletic performance, and a fantastic tool to hold tight right now when reality feels more like a zombie movie than the good old days last year. But unfortunately, optimism could be lethal if it feeds denial of the hard fact that your business may have to radically change to survive. There’s only so much “stay the course” resiliency you should be factoring right now. If you look up definitions of resiliency, you’ll find elasticity and adaptability. Be optimistic that you can evolve; don’t be optimistic that you can stay the same, because the smart money clearly isn’t there right now. 


Information bias

CEO says:  “We need more data before we make a move.”

Data, old friend, sorry for your passing. 

Actually, sorry not sorry, because data always had its dark side in that it was useless unless it supported continuous improvement in real time. Otherwise, data was a historical snap shot, an antiquated security that drove a lot of methodical decision-making.

Information bias, or measurement bias, is what happens when something isn’t pure in the manner in which data is collected and analyzed, or if a strange kind of exposure impacts the data samples. Interpretation of tainted data then becomes a variable in an equation that will deliver an invalid conclusion. This definition is really a research bias (as opposed to an evidence bias), but there are cognitive implications. 

There is nothing stranger than COVID-19 and the exposure we have had, and are continuing to have. In terms of market time, there has been a tectonic shift in everything from consumer confidence, to supply chain confidence, to confidence in our institutions. If the data you seek is based on prospect behavior, few prospects (B2B or B2C) are behaving the same as they did before COVID-19. Post-COVID data (being collected now) is fresh from all of us in this altered state, and may too be tainted because it won’t predict behavior six to 24 months from now. 

So the data you seek? It’s just not there. Don’t wait to take action. Invent!


Confirmation bias

CEO says: “This COVID thing will go away and everything will be back to normal eventually.”

Carl Sagan’s version: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.” Confirmation bias, surrounding oneself with yes-men and yes-women, or ignoring opinion to the contrary, is a common CEO pitfall. Frankly, who wants to be challenged all the time, right? 

Forbes published a study done in 2015 (OK, a thousand years ago) reporting that 31% of CEOs were fired for poor change management, and 23% for denying reality. 

This COVID thing is not going away. Even if you believe it might with a vaccine, COVID-19 is like a fire that is burning down a lot of old timber. New trees will sprout, and even if your sector seems unscathed, the changes happening in adjacent sectors to improve efficiency and speed to market, ensure safer delivery of goods and services, and address newly uncovered pains in everything from acquiring raw materials to customer service, will impact your business, too. 

And frankly, it will also provide opportunities for invention that some companies will exploit to great success, while other companies shutter in denial. 


Denise Kohnke

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