Are we choosing to turn a blind eye?

Posted on August 19, 2019 · Posted in blog, News

Are we choosing to turn a blind eye? And how does this affect our business performance?

Every single conversation I seem to have, be it with clients or with friends around the dinner table, in the last few years,  revolves around the question “how did we not see it coming?” Or “what happened here?”

The excellent book Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan which I recently reread, ignited some thoughts which I would like to share with you, about this question. Here’s why.

“To be a critical thinker starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser,” she says. 

See more in her video here

So without critical thinking, i.e. asking the hard questions, vigorously and courageously unveiling inconvenient truths – organisations could end up as what Sydney Finkelstein calls: “Zombie companies”. 

The whole US financial crisis which shook the world in 2008 suffered from too little critical thinking; too few hard questions were asked. There was more money to be made. There were stubborn, entrenched habits. Tunnel vision and groupthink took over. In Heffernan’s terminology: the system became blind. Since then, we have witnessed (many of us while nodding our heads) how old traditions were shaken to the core when new realities revealed unknown and unobserved processes (such as Trump’s win, Brexit, and more).

It is a well-known truism that truly effective and great leaders are not afraid to hear the truth, even when it is incongruent with the strategy, or even when it is critical of their own decisions. We watch the opposite of this unfold on TV (or Twitter) every day when we follow the political events (almost everywhere) or in our workplaces.

So what makes a healthy organisation?

Healthy organisations have a measure of critical thinking, with robust inquiry methods in place, proper checks and balances, and an attitude of openness to hearing different, diverse views. Over time, they can withstand changes, and they are prone to make fewer mistakes.

One of my dearest clients with whom I have worked for over a decade now, says “if I don’t have people smarter than me around the boardroom, some of us are redundant”. 

This is what Heffernan covers in her book, picking examples from big businesses which faced accidents because they became too big to know details which affect what truly matters (guarding human lives, in this case). She describes the obvious corruption culprits (such as Enron); and companies blinded by too much success in a system that kept doing what it always did, no matter what (Bear Stearns, for example). However, she also looks into the psychology of why is it that we do not see what we should see. Why are we so often blind to what we should know?  

In her words: 

“We can’t notice and know everything; the cognitive limits of our brain won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what do we let through? What do we leave out? And why?”

The Role of Whistleblowers 

Can One Actually Pay Someone For That?

In the book, she analyses the bystanders, and then the “Cassandras”, the whistleblowers. She tries to see what binds these people who simply had to talk of what they knew was wrong, risking everything in the process. Is it a personality trait? Something entrenched in the very makeup of these fairly extraordinary people, which makes them do what most of us don’t?

Rich with examples from history, psychology, science, government and family, not just from business, Heffernan warns that the antidote is: ask the hard questions. Force yourself to face truths. And since you won’t do that unless forced, nominate someone for that job.

If you are in a business or the leader of an organisation, the winning formula is: having someone paid to be the devil’s advocate, someone who has got nothing to gain from the business and who has your best interest at heart (a coach, for example). Secondly, ensure an independent audit is executed, changing auditors frequently. And thirdly, build a culture that encourages dissent and argument. Avoid silent, harmonious organisations. They provide the fertile ground where blindness, by-standing and conformity fester.

There are clear differences that affect each situation – there are cultural differences, for example. Scholars have found that: 

“Individuals from collectivist cultures are less likely to be whistleblowers and less accepting of whistleblowing behaviour, than individuals from individualistic cultures.” 

It also depends on legal frameworks, and professional codes of ethics and practices say Mannion, Blenkinsopp and Powell in their book about whistleblowers in the healthcare space.

However, as we search for useful tips for creating healthy and resilient organisations, we would do well to remember the importance of fighting wilful blindness – our own human biases and fears notwithstanding.