How to Lead Nonprofit Colleagues to Accept Reality
In this time of year-end fundraising campaigns, it's especially likely that professional colleagues might let slip that they are denying reality. It happens more often than you might think. A four-year study by LeadershipIQ.com found that 23 percent of CEOs got fired for denying reality, meaning refusing to recognize negative facts about the organization’s performance. Other findings show that professionals at all levels suffer from the tendency to deny uncomfortable facts in business settings.
Dealing with truth denialism is one of my areas of research and the topic of my recently-published book called "The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide." One of the strategies described there can be summarized under the acronym EGRIP (Emotions, Goals, Rapport, Information, Positive Reinforcement), which provides clear guidelines on how to deal with colleagues who deny the facts.
What Not to Do
Our intuition is to confront our colleagues with the facts and arguments, but research—and common sense, if the colleague is your supervisor—suggests that’s usually exactly the wrong thing to do. When we see someone believing in something we are confident is false, we need to suspect some emotional block is at play. Research on the confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to our beliefs. Studies on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our self-worth or worldview, we may sometimes even develop a stronger attachment to the incorrect belief.
Don’t Argue, EGRIP Instead
If someone denies clear facts, you can safely assume that it’s their emotions that are leading them away from reality. While gut reactions can be helpful, they can also lead us astray in systematic and predictable ways. We need to exhibit emotional leadership and deploy the skill of empathy, meaning understanding other people’s emotions, to determine what emotional blocks might cause them to stick their heads into the sand of reality.
For instance, consider the case of Julie, a new development director of a hospital for which I consulted. She set an ambitious fundraising goal for a brick-and-mortar capital campaign for a new hospital wing: $220 million. The goal was at the outer limit of what the capital campaign feasibility study suggested was possible with the capacity of the existing donor base.
The fundraising staff had some concerns, but went ahead with Julie’s plan. However, as the fundraising team began to go to major donors in the quiet phase of the campaign, it became more and more clear to them that the goal was overly ambitious, a common problem with capital campaigns. Nonprofits typically need to raise at least half and ideally three-quarters of their goal before the public phase of the campaign, and it increasingly looked like the 47 major donors would not even reach 40 percent.
The fundraising staff tried to talk to Julie, but she refused to hear them, and kept pinning her hopes on the next major donor as the staff went from one to another. Looking from the outside in, I saw that Julie tied her self-worth and sense of success to “sticking to her guns,” associating strong leadership with consistency and afraid of appearing weak in her new position. In my role as a neutral consultant, she privately told me that she believed some team members were trying to undermine her by getting her to step back from her goal and admit she failed to deliver.
Understanding her fear and insecurity about being in her new leadership position, I went on to establish shared goals for both of us, which is crucial for effective knowledge sharing in professional environments. I spoke with Julie about how we both share the goal of having her succeed as the development director in the long term and secure her new position in the hospital. Likewise, we both shared the goal of having the fundraising campaign succeed.
Third, build rapport. Practice mirroring, meaning rephrasing in your own words the points made by the other person, which helps build trust in business relationships. Using the empathetic listening you did previously, a vital skill in selling, to echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel. I spoke with Julie about how it must hard to be worried about the loyalty of one’s team members, and what he thinks makes someone a strong leader. I also spoke about the definition of what “success” means in the context of a fundraising campaign.
At this point, start providing new information that might prove a bit challenging, but would not touch the actual pain point. I steered the conversation toward how research suggests one of the most important signs of being a strong leader is the ability to change your mind based on new evidence. I also highlighted how a public commitment to integrity is invaluable for strong leaders. Likewise, I spoke about how “success” in the context of a fundraising campaign might not be simply about raising the largest amount of money possible, but also conveying to donors that the nonprofit staff are highly competent via achieving the campaign goal, as well as preventing burnout for fundraising staff. I mentioned the benefits of a midcourse review to make sure the campaign is successful.
If I had led with this information, Julie might have perceived it as threatening, but since I slipped it in naturally as part of a broader conversation after building rapport built on shared goals and empathy, she accepted it calmly. I asked her where she can best exhibit these characteristics to show those who might try to undermine her what a strong leader she is, and at the same time make the campaign as successful as possible. Without much additional prompting, she suggested scheduling a midcourse review. I provided her with positive reinforcement, a research-based tactic of effective motivation, by praising her ability to exhibit the traits of a strong leader.
During the review, we agreed that the current goal was excessive, and decreased the fundraising goal by 20 percent. Since the public part was not announced yet, the lowered goal did not cause negative publicity for the nonprofit. Behind the scenes, I encouraged the executive director to praise Julie for her foresight and leadership in suggesting the review, to provide further positive reinforcement.
Good luck deploying EGRIP in your own professional life, and remember that you can use it and other similar research-based tactics not simply in professional settings, but in all situations where you want to steer others away from false beliefs.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.