Entrepreneur, CEO, writer, and keynote speaker Margaret Heffernan, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about her insightful and thought provoking book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.
Margaret Heffernan describes the concept of willful blindness, or looking the other way, through a combination of the latest brain research and business, social, cultural, and personal anecdotes, providing a fascinating window on this very human way of seeing and behaving in a complex world.
Thanks to Margaret Heffernan for her time, and for her very informative and comprehensive responses to the questions. They are greatly appreciated.
What was the background to writing this book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril?
Margaret Heffernan: I was commissioned to write 2 plays for the BBC about Enron (I'm one of the few playwrights who can read a balance sheet and earnings statement!) So I was reading the judge's instruction to the jury in the trial of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. And Judge Lake instructed the jury on the concept of willful blindness, according to which, if there are things you could know and should know, but somehow managed not to know, the law still deems you responsible.
The concept is applied most frequently in drug trafficking cases: if a friend gives you a suitcase to take across the border and, when opened, it is found to contain drugs, you are held responsible. You could have known and should have known and that's enough. I thought this should send chills down the spines of most CEOs. And it made me think of the very many instances of willful blindness in our corporate and private lives.
What are some examples of willful blindness in action?
Margaret Heffernan: I write extensively about the 2005 accident at BP's Texas City refinery. There are years of consultants' reports, prior to 2005, saying the place is unsafe. Employees are on record as saying "When I come to work, I wonder if today is the day I will die." Yet the executives claim to have had no knowledge of the dangerous conditions of the plant.
I also write about Libby, Montana which was poisoned with asbestosis. Although people in the town had been dying young for years, many of the townspeople resolutely refused to ask any questions about these deaths -- even though the asbestos mine had long since closed down.
I also write about the banking crisis which pundits said came as a bolt from the blue - when in fact all kinds of people, many of them perfectly ordinary citizens, had warned of it for several years.
Ditto mortgage fraud. The Iraq war. Bernard Madoff. WorldCom fraud. And so on.
Why do people actually prefer willful blindness to facing the reality of the situation?
Margaret Heffernan: People often safer when they turn away from the issues they don't want to face. The horrible irony is that this ostrich-like behavior in fact places them in greater danger, as they just give the problem time to get worse. Employees consistently believe that they have only two choices: shut up or risk losing their jobs. In reality there are far more choices than this, but they don't know how to surface them. And they often feel they're being good soldiers by keeping their mouths shut -- when in fact, every leader depends utterly on the workforce surfacing critical issues. But it takes a very great deal before employees understand and believe this.
Margaret Heffernan (photo left)
How does willful blindness develop and take root in a person?
Margaret Heffernan: There are positive aspects to willful blindness. When you say nothing about the spot on your neighbor's tie, or the fact that her lawn is overgrown, that oils the wheels of social life. In the Blitz in London during the Second World War, dancing and going to parties sustained morale far better than agonizing over the mortality rate might have done. And of course few of us confront the issue of our own mortality each day! So it may start as a survival mechanism - but mis-applied, or over-applied, becomes a risk in itself.
What are some of the dangers posed by being willfully blind to circumstances, events, and people?
When you don't open your credit card bill, when you decide you don't have time for the medical check up, the dangers are personal.
Margaret Heffernan: But when you are in an organization that won't tolerate dissent, that prizes loyalty and conformity above critical thinking, you put entire organizations at risk. The complexity of vast organizations often makes it impossible for anyone to see from one end of a transaction to another. Out-sourcing introduces such vast physical and cultural distances between operations that no one managing them really knows what is going on. (See the case of SIGG water bottles or Apple's shock over working conditions at the Foxcomm factory where its iPhone was made.) I argue also that over-paying individuals - blinding them with money - makes companies less engaged socially. Our willful blindness to pollution, global warming, over-population puts everything at risk.
The gravest challenges we face aren't created by things we don't know about but things we do perceive but turn a blind eye to. The problem isn't that we can't see these problems but that we don't want to look at them.
Are there situations where a person may even be required to be willfully blind to what is happening around them?
Margaret Heffernan: As above for positive aspects. But also in many organizations, when fraud occurs, employees may feel (and sometimes - but only sometimes - are right) that if they say anything, they'll lose their jobs. Clearly Lynn Brewer at Enron felt this. Walt Pavlo at WorldCom felt that he had to turn a blind eye to the accounting malfeasance around him. And it is clear that many people in the mortgage and banking industries knew that mortgages were being mis-sold, that there was widespread fraud and high risks of defaults but that their managements wanted them to ignore this.
What is the first step a person should take to avoid the affliction of willful blindness?
Margaret Heffernan: Check the facts. Consult with colleagues. Build coalitions. And remember: what you do matters.
Are there some techniques that can be employed to end willful blindness for a person?
Margaret Heffernan: Yes. Seek disconfirmation: have friends who try to prove you wrong! Develop an appreciation for conflict done well. Construct hypotheses and test them. Build organizations where dissent is positive.
What is next for Margaret Heffernan?
Margaret Heffernan: I was very struck, examining the housing and mortgage crisis, that the competitive marketplace didn't work the way it is supposed to. Instead of competition creating diversity of products, it produced vast, dangerous conformity. I think that's very interesting and am looking into why and how that occurs. It is not at all what economists expect.
My book review of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan.
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