REVIEW OF WILLFUL BLINDNESS: WHY WE IGNORE THE OBVIOUS AT OUR PERIL
If what you don’t know can’t hurt you, then one would think that ignorance truly is bliss. The truth to knowing the truth, according to bestselling author Margaret Heffernan, is that most of us in business aren’t blissful. Instead, we’re blind to any number of threats and dangers ready to derail us or our company. And, unlike corporate cover-ups whispered about behind closed doors, most of the dangers aren’t secret. We simply refuse to see them.
Heffernan got the idea for Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril after reading the transcript of the trial of Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. It was the Enron trial judge who cited the term’s legal definition: Willful blindness refers to the act of intentionally failing to be informed about things that could make you criminally liable. In Enron’s case, it questioned how Lay could not have known just how corrupt his company had become.
Heffernan investigated and found that willful blindness has played a role throughout history, with everything from religion and war to BP’s safety record and the world of subprime mortgage lending. The truth, according to her, is that for a variety of reasons, we are all apt to look the other way. We don’t want to be bothered with a small issue that seems too insignificant to address or by questioning something everyone else is buying into.
Unfortunately for us, many bad decisions aren’t all taken in a single leap. Ignoring the tiny decisions or not asking the simple question to something that doesn’t make sense can snowball and soon—without a check and balance— tiny and simple becomes large and complex. Acknowledging then fighting willful blindness makes everyone more prepared to look for possible problems, putting everyone in a safer position. For the employees at Enron, raising questions earlier might have saved not only their employer, but also their livelihood. Willful Blindness outlines this phenomenon’s development and then highlights ways companies, institutions and even individuals can fight it. To ‘see better,’ the author addresses several protection methods, including the eradication of being agreeable. Being a critical thinker, Heffernan writes, starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser. For managers, that means refusing to accept those employees who only want to give us the answer we seek and not the ones we need to hear. Corporate culture cannot risk paying only lip service to wanting to hear the truth from their employees and staff. No matter how bad receiving information might seem, a cut to that pipeline could be at a company’s peril.
Heffernan, who also is an entrepreneur and CEO, says that just looking back at her own management experience revealed to her the abundance of knowledge inside organizations than is readily available and often visible but not ‘seen.’ The question now, is whether managers and employees alike will realize the importance of 20/20 vision in their workplace, or will they continue to turn a blind eye to dangers that might cost them everything?
Benjamin Ola. Akande is Dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology and chief of corporate partnerships at Webster University. Follow him on Twitter: @Benjamin_Akande