It just can’t be true. If it were true, the implications would be devastating and the issue deeply rooted. According to Margaret Heffernan, the author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, 85% of employees in organizations in America have issues or concerns about their place of employment AND SAY NOTHING. In the U.S. the main reason for the is the fear of retribution. In England the main reason is futility. I can relate to both ways and have worked in environments where both phenomenons have been present. Think about the implications in your organization if it was true and 85% of the people on your immediate team had significant concerns but were afraid to bring them up either because of what you might do, or what you might not do. This was sobering to me and my first reaction was denial. Not me! Not my team. We are tight. I have put a lot of effort into building an engaging culture where people should feel free to come up to me with issues. Then I thought some more and started to see where people have come in and said something and because I was so distracted, I looked at them and smiled and 10 minutes after they left my office I had no idea what they said. Responses like that leads me to believe that there is definitely room for improvement.
I started doing some research about this and finding out why this blindness exists and how to create an environment where it can be reduced. It is not really a new issue but research is both making us more aware and providing some solutions. Different industries are trying to aggressively address this issue. In healthcare, most hospitals have instituted what is called a “time out” right before a surgery is initiated. I don’t know how many incorrect legs have been amputated or wrong organs removed, but one time is enough. Surgical staff were afraid to challenge the surgeon and speak up to tell them they were doing something wrong. This still exists in healthcare to some extent but has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Administrators in hospitals have worked hard to empower and embolden staff to prevent this from happening.
Communication is the first step in combating the blindness issue. On many levels we have implemented what we call huddle meetings. In my department, I mostly lead them and they are held bi-weekly. At the organizational level the COO usually leads them and they are held twice a week. Key employees in the organization are present and issues of safety, supplies, and productivity are discussed in an open forum. At first people were a bit timid, but the effectiveness of the meeting is growing. Over time we are seeing this sense of boldness increase in our team members. The huddle meetings are part of our High Reliability Organization (HRO) program. Our goal is for our customers to have the same great experience from a service and quality perspective every time they interact with our organization. This takes intentionality and a definite decrease in willful blindness.
The book discusses other reasons for blindness:
- 1st – remember, there are some “bad (evil) people”
- Tunnel Vision – people literally do not see what they do not want to see
- Conformity (the “in group”)
- Hierarchy – organizational structure – division of labor (Too much “distance”)
- Money as motivation
- It’s simply too hard to see – it takes too much energy to consider other viewpoints – (diversity is exhausting)…
As leaders looking at that 85% statistic we have to take some responsibility and not respond with blindness of our own, because we do have it. What is important to others may not be important to us. But can we really afford to think that way. Shouldn’t what is important to members of our team also be important to us? This week I am going to try and reflect on this blindness issue in me and in the team I am fortunate to lead. Here is a list of concepts from the book to consider as you look to create an environment that opens communication and reduces blindness:
- You can’t multitask. So, don’t try to.
- Acknowledge that you have blind spots. Because, you do. (And, so do I).
- Do not reject “regulations” so quickly.
- We like Easy and Convenient – being willfully blind is easier, more convenient… less exhausting. Thus, we don’t put in the effort to combat our own blindness.
- Love people, use things.
- Ask intentional “stasis” questions – Where should we be “stopping to think?”
- Make folks “change sides’ in discussions (make them take the “devil’s advocate” position).
- Welcome/embrace the seekers of the blind spots…