Friday 23 December 2011

The perils of wilful blindness

By Margaret Heffernan

RICHARD Fuld of Lehman Brothers. James Cayne of Bear Stearns. John Thain of Merrill Lynch. John Browne of BP.

All of these men were celebrated leaders in their time, only to find themselves blind-sided by developments inside their organisations. The easy (and comforting) solution is to dismiss them as stupid, greedy or evil. The truth is that they all fell victim to wilful blindness.

Wilful blindness originated as a legal concept. Under British law, if there is information which you could have had, and should have had, but somehow missed, the law still holds you responsible.

It was this concept that was cited when the judge trying Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, respectively chairman and CEO of Enron, instructed the jury: What mattered wasn't whether the two executives knew what was wrong with their company; that they could and should have known is what brought in the 'guilty' verdict.

But wilful blindness doesn't occur only in criminal cases. How did Microsoft miss the Internet and Google overlook the rise of social networking? Questions like these led me to explore the causes of wilful blindness, why we ignore developments which later seem to have been blindingly obvious. That we do so in our personal and professional lives makes it all the more important to understand.

As individuals, we are ineluctably drawn to people just like ourselves. Statistically, we're most likely to choose partners who look and sound like us, have roughly the same build and background.

This is because our brains prefer the familiar - and what is most familiar to us is us. This manifests itself in behaviours both serious and trivial, in how we choose our partners and employees, but also how we select soft drinks.

How we work also determines what we can see. Long hours or missing

sleep have a profound and often under-estimated impact on our brains.

Compare an executive who has worked through the night with a student who is over the alcohol limit: Which has the greater cognitive capacity? The drunken student is better able to solve problems than the heroic professional.

Likewise, we imagine our minds can multi-task whereas in fact we can pay attention to only one thing at a time. Our brains do not parallel process; they task-switch. Moving swiftly between tasks, we create blind spots: those moments when we absorb neither one thing nor another.

When we move into organisations, the forces of wilful blindness merely grow. The experiments into obedience to authority, conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, demonstrated that most people, when asked to perform a wholly unethical act, will do so. This is not because they are bad people. Such behaviour, Milgram argued, is inevitable when we join organisations because our focus shifts, from being good people to doing good work. And we see good work as doing what we are told.

We aren't just obedient; we are also highly conformist. Recent experiments have demonstrated that, when we know how others have answered a simple question about visual comparisons, we will agree with the group even when it is obviously wrong.

Brain scans in this experiment demonstrated that we did so without the areas of our brains responsible for visual recognition even being activated. In other words, what we see depends on what we know others have seen. Seeing is a social act.

Moreover, there are significant neurochemical rewards for sticking with the group. When we feel we belong, our brains are bathed in opioids, making us feel wonderful. Likewise, when we feel excluded, we experience pain akin to giving up drugs or alcohol.

These findings and more have profound implications on how we manage our lives and run our institutions. On the simplest level, it means we ought to be more mindful of the consequences when we try to do too much or have too little sleep. Catastrophic decisions - from bad business decisions to fatal industrial accidents - can be traced to such dangerous working practices. That they are iniquitous does nothing to reduce their risk.

More challenging is the clear need to be more diverse in our social and professional lives, seeking out and protecting people who are different from ourselves. This is hard to do and even harder to preserve, but organisations that can challenge themselves carry far less risk of being blind-sided. Most challenging of all is the critical need to celebrate mistakes and value debate. Mistakes are how we learn and cultures which hide them learn nothing. Likewise, the organisation in which there is little debate turns out to be the one where there is little thinking.

Discussing these and other aspects of wilful blindness during my recent trip to Singapore was a challenging and exhilarating experience. What I heard and saw around me was an eagerness to learn what lay behind some of the gravest errors of our age. Most striking of all was the degree of curiosity I observed: curiosity about how wilful blindness operates, how it can be identified and prevented and what might cause it to flourish.

Is Singapore peculiarly susceptible to wilful blindness? That's the question I was asked most often. I wasn't blind to the level of my own ignorance; after just one visit, this is an impossible question for me to answer. What I do know is that simply asking such questions, being energetically curious about causes and antidotes, is the first way to develop immunity to one of the gravest dangers of our age.

The writer was in Singapore recently to deliver an address at the Civil Service College. She writes on business and is the author of Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril.

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