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Willful Blindness Is Why Leaders and Cultures Fail

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Tue May 05 2015

Willful Blindness Is Why Leaders and Cultures Fail
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“Willful blindness” is a legal term that means there is information that you could and should know, but have elected not to know. The term’s deliberate indifference or contrived ignorance is also used to describe the phenomena. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of willful blindness in the world today, which causes the downfall of an organization’s leadership and culture. Here are some examples of willful blindness:

  • banks selling mortgages to people they knew could not afford them long-term

  • medical interns scheduled to work for 24 hour shifts when hospitals know the safety problems caused by lack of sleep

  • the Catholic Church ignoring the child abuse occurring under their proverbial roof for decades

  • the Enron and Arthur Anderson scandals.

  • Each of these examples exists because at least one person turned a blind eye. In many of these instances, the consequences were most catastrophic when many people turned a blind eye. This is especially common in the workplace. 

    Multiple studies show that 85 percent of employees across the globe respond YES to the question: “Are there issues in the workplace that people are afraid to bring up?” That is an awful lot of silence! Worse, you can’t fix what you refuse to acknowledge. Indeed, this vast amount of willful blindness can hurt companies in a variety of ways:

    productivity

  • safety

  • innovation

  • ethics.

  • We see it in our workplaces every day. Executives decide not to survey their employees because they are going through a challenging time and are afraid of what they will find, or they decide to do the survey and the results are not positive. As a result, the executives put the completed surveys in a drawer and hide them away hoping that no one will ever know about them—even though the employees already know what the culture is like. 

    It’s the employee that works at the hospital and doesn’t speak up regarding procedures or an issue even though they know it relates to patient safety or outcomes.  It’s the organization that has an accountant that has clearly manipulated payroll so they don’t pay taxes and is now being garnished by the IRS, but yet they still have their job  It’s the executive that keeps a sales person even though they are difficult, destroys teamwork, and breaks cultural mores solely because they bring in money. 

    Although we have whistle blower legislation in place to protect employees and give them the freedom to speak up, legislation, rules, and standards won’t solve the problem. The only way to remove willful blindness from the workplace is through culture, leadership, and a strong hiring and selection process. 

    Your culture has to be one that creates transparency and reduces fear in the workplace.  Leaders must support that culture by holding people accountable in a firm and fair way without being ugly, difficult, obstinate or berating employees. Leaders need to use mistakes for learning. We need to have cultures and leaders that reward employees for speaking clearly, plainly, frankly and professionally.

    Organizations must pay particular attention to those they bring into their company. Are they supportive of your culture? Will they continue your culture? Will they strengthen or hinder your culture?

    Some key steps to remove willful blindness: 

    focus on creating self-awareness through feedback tools and programs

  • use data to make decisions

  • create an environment where people are encouraged to play devil’s advocate 

  • use benchmarks or markers for feedback to know whether people are able to tell the truth or if they are suffering from burnout and you can identify problem areas in the workplace

  • hire external resources to help you see your blind spots and encourage you as an organization to remove tunnel vision.

Does willful blindness exist in your organization? Share your strategies to combat it in the Comments.

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