What is ‘willful blindness’, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
‘Willful blindness’ is a legal term that refers to situations where you could or should have known about something. Even if you claim you didn’t know about it, under the law you are treated as though you did. I was writing two plays for the BBC about Enron. In the trial of former Enron executives Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, the judge used the term while giving instructions to the jury: he told them that even if the defendants claimed they didn’t know what was going on, it was still their job to know what was going on. This was at the same time the banks were starting to implode. Again, executives claimed they couldn’t see it coming, despite the fact that so many people were living on debt. The ideas meshed together, and I started thinking about the various circumstances in which willful blindness occurs, and how pervasive it is.
Is willful blindness related to hindsight?
They are actually quite different, because there really are situations in life where something happens and you could not possibly have known about it beforehand. I was very careful in the book to choose examples where there was plenty of prior documented evidence: before the financial catastrophe occurred, people were talking about it, there were warnings, and people were writing about it.
You have said that, “Tunnel vision blinds us to the wider consequences of our decisions.” Can you elaborate?
One of the essential components of any successful career or business is focus; but focus has a really big downside, which is, we can become so focused on a goal that we don’t do the kind of exploration and critical thinking that is needed. One example of this is John Browne, who was chief executive of BP during the Texas City accident in 2005. Browne had a leadership style that made him the centre of the BP universe. As he concedes in his memoirs, he didn’t welcome conflict or challenge. Everybody was so busy thinking about what he might want, and what might appeal to him, that anything that didn’t please him never quite made it onto the agenda. Unfortunately, one of the things that didn’t really interest Browne was safety: safety wasn’t sexy, so nobody prioritized it. Of course, it turned out that people had been warning about the possible danger in Texas City for years, but it never received any particular attention within the organization -- until an explosion killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200 more.
What can we learn from this example?
There’s a personal piece and an organizational piece. The organizational piece says, when you have a very dynamic leader whose primary focus is on goals, that leader’s preferences will often suppress exploration, conflict, debate and critical thinking. The same thing happens in our personal lives. As we get older, we develop habits and routines; there are certain magazines and newspapers we read and certain ones that we don’t, and we tend to gravitate towards those opinions, people and publications that we agree with. On one level, this is fine. It’s a rare person who picks up a magazine knowing full well he’s going to hate it! But on another level, it means that we are effectively blinding ourselves to counter-arguments, disconfirming information, and challenging data that might suggest to us that we’re wrong about something.
You have compared this propensity for tunnel vision to the formation of a riverbed. Please explain.
Neurologist Robert Barton once explained to me how the brain develops, accumulating patterns as we grow up. The more patterns it accumulates, the more efficient it becomes, sort of like the creation of a riverbed: it starts as a meandering stream, and gradually, the stream creates a groove, which gets deeper and deeper and more direct. Likewise, we become more and more efficient and doing basic things becomes much easier. This feels great, except that, like the sides of a riverbed getting higher and higher, we put up our own walls, and we begin to see less and less outside of our comfort zones.
Please describe the connections between personal and organizational tunnel vision.
What is particularly interesting is that personally, tunnel vision makes us very efficient and comfortable at exactly the moment that it puts us at the greatest risk, and I would argue that the same thing is true in organizations. Oftentimes, having a very dynamic, confident leader makes everybody feel confident, because they know what they need to do to be successful. But the more an organization is in thrall to one individual, the less intelligent it becomes, because the collective intelligence is being disabled by its service to this one individual.
Describe the impact of willful blindness on a wider context – such as globalization.
One example is outsourcing. We outsource for all sorts of reasons – tax purposes, cheaper labour, to cut costs, and this often makes sense, at least in the short term. But the downside isn’t just political outcry about exporting jobs: it’s that the more attenuated a product chain becomes, the harder it is to see what is really going on. A prime example is the Sigg water bottle. Sigg made its name creating stylish, reusable water bottles that were free of Bisphenol A or ‘BPA’ -- a toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemical. They were known for being both green and healthy: until it was discovered that the bottles were actually lined with BPA. It turned out that Sigg had outsourced its manufacturing, and it claimed to be completely ignorant of the process. There was no particular reason not to believe them. But if a simple water bottle company could so easily lose sight of what was happening in its outsourcing, imagine what could happen in more complex industries. I think we’re all a little hubristic about our communication skills and how much we can actually control.
Why do so many employees fail to speak up, and instead choose to exhibit what you call ‘ostrich behaviour’?
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]