“Willful Blindness” by Margaret Heffernan – book review
I planned to start this review with a mention of Brexit but the events in the US this week have overshadowed even that. Why do we – individuals, groups and organisations – so easily fall into the trap of willful blindness? Why do we actively refuse to pay attention to clearly unethical behaviours and systems? Why is it so difficult to lead with kindness?
“You cannot fix a problem that you refuse to acknowledge.”Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan, one of my favourite business thinkers of our times, describes her personal explorations of this topic in her book on the topic, which I strongly recommend it to leaders and managers. Like all other challenges of building safe and nurturing organisations, willful blindness has many factors and deep roots in how we operate as humans. We have a strong need to belong. We live in systems that prefer high organisational ladders and titles over closely connected, human relationships. We have money – which, as Hefferan investigated – tends to interfere with our humanity. And so much more!
“As long as it (an issue) remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”Margaret Heffernan
However, I like this book because Heffernan is making a case for building better organisations and systems designed around the safety and trusted human connections. Active calling out of inequalities benefits everyone. Spotting and flagging up mistakes on all levels of a company is actually very useful for its leaders. Nurturing staff, instead of short term customer service model, saves money, increases brand loyalty and promotes true innovation. Of course, those of us who have experienced nurturing leadership know this – we have seen the benefits of this approach in action.
“Being a critical thinker starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser.”Margaret Heffernan
However, as Hefferon rightly points out, we still live the reality in which systems are designed to punish those who do not comply with them, who question the status quo. A grievance process is oftentimes on the record of the person who initiates it – not on the manager’s one. The fame of whistleblowing rarely opens doors to new jobs. And let’s face it – internally, those who question, strive for improvements or call out mistakes are often labels as “nuisance”. So let’s face it – tackling willful blindness is remarkably hard.
“The only consequence of their (employee) silence is that the blind (employer) lead the blind.”Margaret Heffernan
Luckily, times are slowly changing. This week has certainly shown us the wave of a shifting sentiment towards a kinder society. So what can we do individually to identify willful blindness? Here are a few tips that worked for my clients:
1.Lead with kindness, not power. Power corrupts and makes you blind. It closes the doors for those who might wish you well and warn you before it’s too late. If your staff feel they need to please you and are scared to flag up mistakes, admit it: you are leading with power, which needs to change. You might need to unlearn the traditional power dynamics and educate yourself on a kinder, more humble approach.
2. Celebrate diversity. Tolerating difference is simply not enough. Celebrate and learn to treasure people who disagree with you, who are different, who make you feel uncomfortable – it is your burden to carry, not yours. It is also a sign that you can learn, grow and change. Change is the key to innovation.
3. Model vulnerability. Show your staff that you are human and you do fail. Fail miserably and openly. Pick yourself up. Allow others to support you. Get up and learn from it. Work collaboratively on solutions. Show your team that it is OK not to know, make mistakes and come back from them wiser.
4. Practice humility. This one is often hard, but it is a simple sign of a kind leader. A simple test, if you like. And we all see it in good leaders: daily! Pick up the trash. I mean, literally. If you feel it is the job of your cleaner or assistant or admin person to tidy up after you and you are too high up on the company ladder to take out the trash – you are leading with power, not kindness. You are just as much of a human as all of those people, and it is your responsibility to wash up that mug. So own up to it. Let your assistant go first through the door. Offer to lock up, if you stay late in the office.
5. Remember your “why”. Historically, our leaders were chosen not to reap the benefits of their seats, but to care for their groups, so don’t forget that that’s your priority. Your job is to care for your staff, to keep them safe, to nurture and protect. Not to scare. Not to stand above. Not to be the entitled individual in the room. The benefits of leadership come after their responsibilities: and the core one is to keep your people well.
Photo by christopher lemercier on Unsplash