Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How to Address Willful Blindness

Margaret Heffernen, the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book Award nominee defines ‘willful blindness’ and how to address it in your organization – and in your life

Published: Oct 25, 2013 06:23:17 AM IST
Updated: Oct 11, 2013 03:37:42 PM IST
How to Address Willful Blindness
Margaret Heffernen is an entrepreneur who has served as CEO of three businesses in the U.S

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’?
While researching my book, it was almost invariably the case that when something was going wrong in an organization, lots of people knew about it, but they chose to stick their heads in the proverbial sand and not acknowledge it. Whether it’s the realm of dangerous surgeons, bad production processes or questionable accounting, when people work in teams, it is extremely rare for something to go wrong and for just one person to know about it. Yet so often, nobody says anything, partly out of loyalty to their colleagues, but, overwhelmingly, because they are afraid to get involved in a conflict that they might not know how to manage. They think, “Why risk it?  It’s not my problem; somebody else will say something.”  Or they tell their colleagues or their peers about it, and feel as if they have ‘done something’, even though they haven’t done a thing to solve the problem. When it all blows up, no one is particularly surprised. Today, more than ever, there is a vital need for people to speak up.

What happens when someone does speak up?

When you find that rare individual who dares to speak up, in many cases, not only do they not lose their job, but it is the single thing that they are most proud of in their careers. It’s important to recognize that if you don’t speak up, you are choosing to be willfully blind.

Is willful blindness innate, or is it a learned behaviour?
I think it’s absolutely something that we learn. Choosing not to see is a really easy, lazy decision. It’s important for all of us to learn how to raise issues in ways that are politically safe, but which ensure that we can be heard.  And it’s important for us to do it with small things, so that we get the confidence to do it with big things when they arise.  

Creating a culture in which people feel comfortable speaking up is the single-biggest challenge facing leaders today.  Most leaders don’t do it, because they don’t know how, but the best leaders know how important it is.  When people say, “My door is always open; and the messenger will not be shot”, they have to appreciate that nobody believes them -- until they demonstrate that bad news that turns out to be legitimate is rewarded. We need to look at the people inside of an organization as its ‘early warning system’: people need to be engaged enough to want to speak up. And we have to have the processes in place that enable them to do that easily, without fear of recrimination.  

You also study ‘critical thinking’. Is this part of the antidote to willful blindness?
Certainly. Basically, critical thinking has two incarnations. The first is the personal version, which involves questioning oneself -- asking if what you’re saying makes sense, or wondering what you might be missing in a scenario. It also involves asking how your actions affect the weakest people and weighing pros and cons and comfort levels. How comfortable would you be if your friends and family saw you at work, making the decisions that you make? Critical thinking involves constantly sifting through our experience to try to understand it, to see what the implicit patterns are and dare to take ideas further.  The organizational incarnation of critical thinking involves facilitating and encouraging arguments, and creating an environment in which people can challenge authority and, indeed, are encouraged to do so.

The trouble starts when people choose not to engage in critical thinking.  It might be because they are too busy, or they don’t want to have an argument – they just want to get on with their work.  But we need to have discussions, even arguments, if only to determine that what we’re doing is okay. Think of it as a health check: you’re ruling out things and getting better value out of mistakes.   The fact is, when things go wrong, they often start with something small, and it escalates so slowly that nobody really notices it.  When minor infractions happen without acknowledgement, over and over,  things cycle out of control. But if we pay attention to those early weak signals, we could avert the larger danger.

What are the steps necessary to overcome willful blindness?
Once you understand the idea, you need to think about the areas in your life or organization where you think willful blindness might exist. I call this doing a ‘silent audit’. You have to ask yourself how it happens -- what are the structures and processes that enable it to flourish? What are the antidotes, and how many of these do you have in place?  

In the end, willful blindness isn’t about people being bad; it’s about people being human. Enabling critical thinking, within organizations and in one’s own personal life, can open your eyes. The key is to get into that habit of mind, and to create spaces in which critical thinking can flourish.

MARGARET HEFFERNAN is an entrepreneur who has served as CEO of three businesses in the U.S.  She is also an author and former television producer at the BBC who has worked on multimedia projects with Peter Lynch, Tom Peters and Standard & Poors. Her third book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (Doubleday, 2012) was shortlisted for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book award. She is a visiting professor of Entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston and executive-in-residence at Babson College.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]