Are you subject to “willful blindness”? Are you or your organization putting on blinders to go into denial and not address a critical situation? In a past TED presentation and in her writing, Margaret Heffernan examines why communities and businesses refuse to face the facts about what is really going on in their organizations.
In the talk, she describes a community that she visited where the mortality rate was 80 times higher than anywhere else in the US. One of the community members who began to research the facts tried to alert others in her community about the situation. To the woman’s shock, no one wanted to know, even though many lost family members prematurely. The road to removing toxic substances from the community’s environment was long and frustrating.
Willful blindness stood in the way.
Are you or your organization putting on blinders to go into denial and not address a critical situation?
Willful blindness is a state of denial where the majority of those involved in a business, profession or community are more committed to conflict-avoidance and selective blindness than facing the reality of a situation. For example, JP Morgan hiding billions of dollars of losses in their derivatives group and thinking that they could regain the losses without others knowing, the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, Bernie Madoff’s investors avoiding any cracks in the original strategy, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Willful blindness can also occur on the individual level. When you are in a position of power, you can delude yourself and demand from others the reality you prefer – for a while at least. I’ve seen more entrepreneurs than I’d care to recount who set up parameters making it unacceptable for others to question what’s going on in the business. They ignored important facts and opportunities because they didn’t want to see things differently. Eighty percent of businesses fail in the first 10 years. I wonder how many of the failed businesses were subject to the willful blindness of the CEO?
Jim Collins sites the same phenomena in his seminal book, Good to Great. He calls it “facing the brutal facts.” In his research, the best performing companies have a structure in place where people can communicate honestly about what they see. The goal here isn’t to give up your vision for the success of the company, but to make sure that you are weighing out the facts so that you can adjust your strategy and plan to achieve your goals.
In coaching C-Suite executives, we have encountered the willful blindness of key leaders who aren’t hearing what employees and customers say and wind up being shocked when they get fired. I had coached the CEO of a hospital who wasn’t hearing feedback from the Regional President, his team and other staff. Despite his stating that he wanted to make changes and having an action plan in place to do so, he would go into automatic pilot and continue to operate as he did in the past – being a micro-manager, focusing on the tasks at hand and not engaging others and appearing not to act on the feedback he’d received to improve his interpersonal skills.
How can you avoid the trap of willful blindness? The first step is to be aware of your prejudices. For example, in the spirit of “staying positive,” are you squelching others from sharing their observations and data if it runs counter to your view or plan? Are you labeling them as “negative” because they question your course of action? Are you willing to hear diverse opinions or are you shutting others down making it politically incorrect for them to express an opposing opinion?
Consider participating in a peer group where you can bring your issues and challenges to others who you trust and respect. In my years of experience facilitating CEO roundtables, I’ve witnessed the impact of getting no holds barred feedback from peers who aren’t afraid to tell the truth. As the old fable goes, they aren’t afraid to tell the emperor that they aren’t wearing clothes.
Lastly, create a structure for people on your team or in your organization to be able to share their views without fear of retribution or being seen as politically incorrect. Asking questions can be a powerful door opener. Once everyone has had a chance to express their opinion and supporting facts, synthesize the data and check yourself for willful blindness.