Why Organizations Lie To Themselves

Andrea Belk Olson
4 min readJan 30, 2023

As a leader, one of the jobs you have is to identify organizational gaps. Whether it be operational, resource-based, process-centric, or sales-driven. But what happens when you overlook or completely dismiss gaps that you know exist? Some might say that’s negligence, but the real question is, what’s the cause of that negligence? Is it laziness? Ignorance? Or avoidance?

We all know (especially if you are on the front lines) of problems within our organizations where there are risks of failure or collapse (just consider the recent debacle with Southwest Airlines). We’re not talking about high-level sales trends or the entrance of new competitors, but the nuts and bolts of the company. However, leaders are often either intimidated, already overwhelmed, or don’t feel these problems are of high-level importance. For instance, here are two frequently seen examples:

  1. The same process has been in place and executed by the same person for many years — others have only a vague idea about the details of that process until the person retires.
  2. A legacy system has been spitting reports faithfully until one day they break after a seemingly unrelated change. A developer has to read the code to figure out what it is that the report cannot handle, since the rules behind the report became so obscure that nobody can remember them anymore and/or went undocumented for years.

Why are these two examples important? First, the legacy process in place is a “one point of failure”. Depending on the area or department, workflows could completely grind to a halt once the individual retirees. Second, the legacy system falls in the same category, but also impacts effective decision-making, and likely isn’t the only “legacy system” patched together by band-aids and twist-ties.

These are complicated problems. They have far-reaching implications. It’s far easier to train one person to handle a process when the retiree leaves. It’s far easier to simply have one person fix the report-generating system and move on to the next thing. But these systemic problems aren’t something that leaders should push to the bottom of the list, cover-up, or park indefinitely. In reality, we do it every day and tell ourselves everything will be ok — until it’s not.

Why do we lie to ourselves as organizations about these types of issues? In short, it’s not because they are unknown, or that they are unfixable. There are usually softer, more abstract reasons why they aren’t tackled:

  1. There’s No Owner and/or No One Wants To Own It
  2. There’s an Embedded Culture of Avoiding or Hiding Anything which could be Perceived as Negative
  3. There’s an Internal Perception (or reality) Where Issues or Problems are Assigned Blame to an Individual or Department
  4. There’s a Perception the Cost to Fix it is Uneconomical and/or Will Take too Long to See a Benefit and/or Too Big to Tackle (when it’s not actually reality)
  5. There’s a Perception that it’s not Really a Problem, that Employees are Being Overly Dramatic, are Seeing the Problem as Bigger than it is, or are Simply Inefficient
  6. There’s Some Manufactured Internal Optics where if the Problem is Addressed, it will have Downstream Internal Political Ramificaitons
  7. There’s a Hope that the Problem Won’t Come to a Head Until after You Leave the Company or Retire

These are all avoidance behaviors and culturally-driven causes — not monetary, not process, not resource, and not skillset issues. And these causes of inaction are completely and totally changeable. As leaders, we need to be drivers of change, and set the example — avoiding problems encourages your team to do the same. If unsexy, difficult, complex, and simply un-fun problems are consistently hidden or avoided, you’re not really being a leader or leading the organization. Smart leaders aren’t afraid to be honest about hard truths, and understand that the most difficult topics and conversations, especially about organizational issues or problems, are the most important ones to address.

All of the above are smoke signals of potential failure. But when you ignore these signals, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest into a reality that is catastrophic. It’s essential that leaders remove the rose-colored glasses and face the realities of what’s working well and what isn’t working well within the business, and place the honesty on the table for all to see. Only then can a clear plan-of-action be created to correct it, and prevent the inevitable.

About the Author

Andrea’s 25-year, field-tested background provides practical, behavioral science approaches to creating differentiated, human-focused organizations. A 4x ADDY award-winner, TEDx presenter, and 3x book author, she began her career at a tech start-up and led the strategic sales, marketing, and customer engagement efforts at two global industrial manufacturers. She now leads a change agency dedicated to helping organizations differentiate their brands using behavioral science.

In addition to writing and consulting, Andrea speaks to leaders and industry organizations around the world. Connect with Andrea to access information on her book, keynoting, research, or consulting. More information is also available at www.pragmadik.com or www.andreabelkolson.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.



Andrea Belk Olson

Behavioral Scientist. Customer-Centricity Expert. Prolific Author. Compelling Speaker. More at www.andreabelkolson.com