Beware Of Collective Delusion In The Workplace

Humans have a surprising capacity for self-delusion. Have you ever said “When Santa Claus / the Easter Bunny / the Tooth Fairy visit?” Do you talk to your pet like it can understand you? Repeat something often enough and it becomes surprisingly real. these are examples of benign and harmless collective delusions, unless you’re the crazy cat lady. Unfortunately, collective delusions also show up in our work. They are not so benign and harmless. Have you experienced any of these situations?

  • A project that has an unrealistic deadline
  • A sales target that is not achievable
  • A product that doesn’t solve a customer pain point
  • A marketing campaign that isn’t persuasive
  • A business model that requires unrealistic market share or customer growth

Work delusions are extremely dangerous because they waste time, they waste money, they often result in blame and finger pointing and they erode morale and energy. Collective delusions don’t invite criticism or someone calling attention to them because there is safety in numbers.

Identifying Delusions

How can you tell whether you or your team are simply being pessimistic, or are in fact waking up to a delusion? Apply the 4 step Santa Claus test.

  1. Do you or other people badly want this project / product / campaign / sales initiative to be successful?
  2. Does finding a plan for success require you to engage your imagination rather than creativity?
  3. Do any of the steps in your plan appear to require magic or a leap of faith?
  4. What happens when you ask other people if they see the same flaws that you see?

If the answers to the first three questions are “Yes”, that’s a strong sign. If you quietly raise your suspicions and people tell you that “you just don’t want it bad enough” or try to convince you that magic is possible and real, you are dealing with a collective delusion.

Working With Delusion

Collective delusion cannot co-exist with transparency and rigor. As a manager it’s important to build that into your team. If people know it’s OK to speak up and ALSO know that they’ll be held to a high standard for backing up their argument, you have the chance of avoiding the delusion.

If you find yourself in a situation where you observe collective delusion around you and you’ve worked through the Santa Claus test, no-one is going to thank you for pressing the point. Instead, think about what will need to happen once the delusion is discovered. Because at some point one thing or enough things will happen that everyone starts to wake up. So rather than be the person who says “I told you so”, try being the person who says “here’s where we go from here”.

What delusions have you encountered in your work? What was the outcome?

This post originally appeared on the Reflective Management blog at

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