Wilful blindness, belonging and exclusion
Wilful blindness is everywhere
As I deepen my familiarity with the concept of wilful blindness, I’m intrigued (and somewhat shocked) to realise how widespread it is as a way of thinking, assessing, judging, and making decisions. It seems to be at work all around us.
Examples of wilful blindness at both the organisational and the personal level
Margaret Heffernan, in her book ‘Wilful Bilndness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril’ talks of wilful blindness as ‘a deliberate blinding of oneself to uncomfortable facts …..in situations where there’s an opportunity for knowledge and a responsibility to be informed which is shirked’. We see it in the Enron scandal, in early scepticism about the prospects for new technology (such as personal computers and mobile phones), and in stories of whistleblowing.
And we see it in smaller-scale situations to do with relationships, behaviours and choices to take – or not take – action and to contemplate alternatives to decisions which we’ve already taken, albeit unconsciously: spouses who don’t want to admit their partners’ failings to themselves, organisations which tolerate bad behaviour, decisions that are made without taking evidence and facts into account.
Destructive industrial accidents have been caused because the decision-makers chose – albeit unconsciously – not to see the facts in front of them, usually repeatedly.
People who are like us: obeying and conforming
We humans habitually look for the easy way out, the familiar, the least challenging path. We seek the company of people who think like us and who are unlikely to confront us.
Heffernan suggests that it’s the fear of conflict and fear of change that cause us to filter out what unsettles our egos and our most vital beliefs – and that a powerful, unconscious impulse to obey and conform means that we favour information that makes us feel good about ourselves, and that makes us feel comfortable and more certain than we already were. Intriguingly, while being blind gives us a feeling of safety, in fact, says Heffernan, it leaves us ‘crippled, vulnerable and powerless’.
The risk of exclusion
Only by facing the truth can we properly release our capacity for change – and yet when we take an unpopular decision, or call attention to unpopular facts, we risk being excluded from the group we belong to, and we suffer pain that is akin to physical pain.
Groupthink and whistleblowing
Such patterns are fertile ground for groupthink, inhibiting progress and change. Those who dare to challenge can risk career-threatening exclusion. Whistleblowers such as Dr Steve Bolsin, who emigrated from the UK to Australia after revealing medical incompetence that caused the deaths of dozens of children in Bristol, are prime examples.
Facing the brutal facts – and the drive to belong
Author Jim Collins, in his book ‘Good to Great’ exhorts us to ‘face the brutal facts’ if we are to create and build successful companies. This makes perfect sense – until we realise that human beings are hard-wired not to face the brutal facts: the choices we make when it’s a question of risking our belonging in a group are unconscious and thus very powerful.
The most basic human need is to belong. As a result, it can feel intolerable to contemplate damaging our membership of a group by challenging or questioning any of the beliefs and attitudes which define it. Yet without challenging the thinking of a group to which we belong (the family, with all its attitudes and beliefs, and all its behaviours and habits, being the most obvious one), the chances are seriously diminished of growth, progress and change that is anchored and sustained.
A systemic approach to address long-held patterns
All of us take our family patterns to work. I have coached very senior people whose effectiveness is inhibited because their behaviours fruitlessly repeat long-established patterns because of their unconscious loyalty to beliefs and values that have always been with them. In the process they’ve been ignoring evidence that’s in front of their noses but which they refuse to take account of because it puts their belonging at risk.
When the client and I work on such dilemmas from a systemic perspective, they quite often find a resolution which allows them to move on, to appropriately acknowledge what they’ve brought with them, and – without the pain of exclusion (or the threat of it, which creates the same pain as the exclusion itself) – to creatively make the changes they want and need to. They frequently report both surprise and a new sense of freedom. It’s fascinating to observe the positive, and sometimes radical, changes they make which they say they couldn’t have previously contemplated and which they nevertheless go on to sustain without effort after our work together.
 ‘Wilful Bilndness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril’ – Margaret Heffernan, 2011, Simon and Schuster
 ‘Good to Great – why come companies make the leap and others don’t’, 2001, Random House Business Books