Geekend: Stubborn Deniers Demand Creative Solutions

Want a colleague to admit there's a problem? Find a solution that he can tolerate.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

November 7, 2014

4 Min Read

Have you ever had a co-worker who stubbornly denies that there's a problem -- no matter how many alarms and whistles are going off? You wonder how anyone could be so dense not to see the problem, even if he or she disagrees with you about the solution.

Turns out that -- like it or not -- it is human nature to ignore or even deny a problem when we don't like the solution. It's called solution aversion or motivated disbelief.

Researchers at Duke University have published research showing that solution aversion is definitely a problem in politics, and it probably also filters down into all sort of decisions we all make. They tested known liberals and conservatives around issues of climate change and gun control, for example, and found that when people were more likely to agree with the solution to a problem, they were more likely to identify the problem as real.

For instance, when conservative Republicans were asked about climate change and the question referenced "liberal" solutions to the problem, like government regulations or new taxes, only 22% were willing to admit climate change was real. But when the question was framed to include free market solutions to climate change, 55% of conservatives were willing to admit it existed.

[Flexibility has its limits. Read Dogs In The Data Center: Flexibility Gone Wild.]

The same result was found with liberal Democrats around gun control. When asked about gun violence, if the solution involved less gun control, they were more likely to deny that gun violence was even a problem. When the solution involved stricter gun control measures, liberals saw gun violence as more common.

It looks like this:

Here's another way to look at it: If someone said to you, "You're putting on weight. You need to cut down on the cake," would you immediately cut back on cake, or would you say something like, "I'm not fat; I'm just snuggly"? What if instead they said, "You're putting on weight. I'm going to this really fun dance class with lots of attractive singles. You should come"? What would happen? You'd concentrate on the sexy singles and the fun and not whether you were fat, right?

It's no different at work. Suppose a colleague said, "The project is really behind. We should all work until midnight to catch up." Would you agree enthusiastically, or would you perhaps deny that the project was behind?

The solution to a problem frames the way we think about the problem itself -- that's only natural. It really brings the phrase "the first step to solving a problem is admitting it exists" into new perspective. You aren't going to admit there's a problem if you aren't ready to tackle the solution. That's why addicts need to hit rock bottom before they go to treatment, and it's why politicians persistently deny a problem no matter how obvious it might be to the other side.

So what can you do about it? Managers can start by divorcing the problem from the solution when giving the news. They can also suggest a solution that might be more palatable to their workers before they suggest the less desirable solution.

Many of the same strategies apply to our own lives. No one will decide to lose weight if the only solution is denying oneself. Finding solutions you can live with is the key to solving your problems.

Easier said than done, of course. But as Lucy van Pelt once said to Charlie Brown, "If we can find out what you're afraid of, we can label it." If you're suffering from solution aversion or motivated denial, at least now you know what it is. Armed with the new label, you might be able to avoid it.

What do you think? Have you seen solution denial in action? What have you done to try to convince people they have a problem? Tell us in the comments.

If the world wasn't changing, we might continue to view IT purely as a service organization, and ITSM might be the most important focus for IT leaders. But it's not, it isn't, and it won't be -- at least not in its present form. Get the Research: Beyond IT Service Management report today. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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