The cover story of Associations Now this month has a psychological bent to it: it’s about confronting your past in order to create a better future. The author, psychiatrist Keith Ablow, argues this is true for both individuals and organizations. I agree. Our brains are hard wired to be aware of what happened in the past and use that as part of our decision making in the present. Although that awareness is not always conscious, and that is what Ablow is talking about.
He points out that our brain naturally has defense mechanisms against things that are painful or unpleasant, even painful recollections of the past. The king of these mechanisms is denial. We know things are wrong, but we cover it up because it helps us avoid a painful conversation. His analogy is of someone who knows he needs knee surgery, but avoids it by altering his step just a bit (and later needs hip surgery too).
When a root problem is covered up, every step is a misstep, because you can’t outdistance the past: The truth always wins. And avoiding painful realities today means payback, with interest, tomorrow.
We can literally spend our entire lives or many years of an organization’s evolution) creating and trying to sustain elaborate fictions to hide from others—and not uncommonly, from ourselves.
Situations like Enron are not as unbelievable as we might think. The scale was amazing, but the core dynamic was common, even “normal.” You may not be robbing shareholders of bazillions of dollars, but are you continually making “missteps” by avoiding that unpleasant truth in your past?