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Denial, or our mental tendency to lock out stress, not only dictates the way we engage with our employers but also, more worryingly, has plenty to do with the way we engage with our own careers and work lives. Photo: ThinkStock
Denial, or our mental tendency to lock out stress, not only dictates the way we engage with our employers but also, more worryingly, has plenty to do with the way we engage with our own careers and work lives. Photo: ThinkStock

Cubiclenama | The denial code

Denial maybe vital for human beings to stay sane. But the occasional dose of reality seems equally indispensable

If my typing feels a little hurried this week, it is because I’ve been spending every free moment of the day reading Dan Brown’s latest historio-symbologico-midlifecrisiso-thriller. Meanwhile, around me deadlines are falling lifeless like characters in a Giorgio Vasari battle scene. I’ve been playing catch up with assignments all week.

To answer the question on your mind: so far Inferno reads like the weakest of Dan Brown’s Langdon novels. The puzzles and twists and turns all seem quite obvious, and none of the “reveals" have been particularly mind-blowing. Dante, it seems, is no match for the wiles and whimsies of our old friend Leonardo.

However, there was one short passage in the book that made me think. It has nothing at all to do with the plot itself. So don’t worry about spoilers:

The female lead, Sienna Brooks, tells Tom Hanks: “The human mind has a primitive ego defence mechanism that negates all realities that produce too much stress for the brain to handle. It’s called denial."

“I’ve heard of denial," Langdon quipped blithely, “but I don’t think it exists."

Sienna rolled her eyes. “Cute, but believe me, it’s very real. Denial is a critical part of the human coping mechanism. Without it, we would all wake up terrified every morning about all the ways we could die. Instead, our minds block out our existential fears by focusing on stresses we can handle-like getting to work on time or paying our taxes. If we have wider, existential fears, we jettison them very quickly, refocusing on simple task and daily trivialities."

Langdon went completely silent as he mentally took all the words in Sienna’s monologue on denial, rearranged them and realized…that they form the latin translation of the lyrics to Def Leppard’s 1987 hit single Pour Some Sugar on Me!!!!!

I made that last bit up.

But that bit about denial really made me put the book down and think.

The idea of denial, I feel, has plenty of implications for the workplace. Denial, or our mental tendency to lock out stress, not only dictates the way we engage with our employers but also, more worryingly, has plenty to do with the way we engage with our own careers and work lives.

For instance, why do so many people keep working for companies that are certain to fail? Why do so many entrepreneurs persist with terrible start-up ideas? I know plenty of friends and acquaintances who’ve actually switched jobs and joined new companies even when it was widely known that their new employers were on the verge of breakdown or bankruptcy. Denial, surely.

Denial is also the reason, I suppose, why so many people put so much energy into projects that are pointless, immoral and even illegal. Yesterday I read a chilling Forbes magazine article on sinister business practices at Ranbaxy that made the blood in my veins curdle up and turn into sludge. Companies of that size with so many employees can only function like that if so many of their senior staff live in crime or utter denial.

Indeed many organizations, I suppose, depend on their employees living in some form of denial. How else do you explain soldiers or policemen who have been trained to follow orders without question, even when there is a fair chance that the officers leading them maybe complete suicidal idiots?

Patriotism helps. But surely an ability to banish the idea of certain—sometimes meaningless—death plays a role? What if on the morning of a crucial mission, soldiers sat around and began assessing the risk-reward ratios of their actions? Now that I think about it, armed forces may actually be the organizations that most efficiently use denial as a tool.

Ah. No wonder some management theorists want companies that are run with military precision.

But denial also plays a huge role in our individual approach to life and work.

For instance—and we’ve mentioned this here before—many of us like to think that we do what we do for a living because we are passionate about it, or it motivates us, or it fulfils some form of internal longing. When in fact we may be doing it for the money. Or the power. Mostly.

I really like writing. I can’t think of doing anything else for a living. Would I quit and become a banker or a consultant for double the pay? Maybe not. For triple the pay, a 2010 Rolex Explorer II and a house in Dorset by the sea? yes yes yes, do you want a one-page or two-page resume?

So why don’t we just admit to ourselves as much. Why not just tell oneself that the job sucks, the hours are terrible, the co-workers are dimwitted buffoons, but I need the money and the flat in Khar and the iPad Mini and the holidays in Bali and the Tod’s loafers.

And maybe, by being less hypocritical with ourselves, we may actually be happier at work. This may even help us make better career decisions or reconcile with bad ones.

Denial, as Sienna Brooks says, maybe vital for human beings to stay sane. But the occasional dose of reality seems equally indispensable.

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama

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