Willful blindness: a term used in law to describe a situation in which an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting his or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable.
That’s a pretty severe accusation to make against an individual or corporation, and I would imagine that it’s even harder to prove. In her book about the subject, however, Margaret Heffernan asserts that this type of ignorance exists all around us. It exists on an epic scale such as the mortgage crisis in 2008 and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Dai-ichi. In her TED talk, Margaret details the willful negligence of WR Grace in Libby, Montana, where the entire town was exposed to asbestos-related health risks to make a buck.
It took the courage of Gayla Benefield, a concerned citizen in the town, months of persistence before federal intervention entered the fray. She knew things weren’t right, and was willing to say something about it.
Her story is inspiring, and yet troubling, because we have the same freedom and empowerment for our teams to speak up. In many situations, we know things aren’t right. Yet, we say nothing.
In her research for the book, Heffernan did research in the US and Europe asking a single question: are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise? The answer was an alarming 85 percent of people saying “yes”.
Often, regardless of the country she researched, the reason most people gave related to that particular country’s culture. As if this fear is something specific to England, Germany, or US. This instead points to it being a human issue, which means it is pervasive in everyone’s work around the world.
Heffernan argues that if culture is the accumulation of everyone’s actions, we can change the culture if we change our actions. It just takes the courage to do so. Where does that courage come from, though? What makes the other 15 percent different than the rest of us?
As leaders, we can take our sphere of influence — be it a team of 5 or a company of a few thousand — and change how we act when we see problems arise. Heffernan describes that courage as the ability to see what the world looks like to the powerless.
See it, understand it, and say something about it.
If we say nothing, we go on wondering if anyone else feels the same way we do. If we do nothing, we take the freedom afforded to us and we render it irrelevant. If we do speak up, however, we create something new: an environment where people can speak freely, and you can build a business that is sustainable and safe.
Silence is the most dangerous thing in an organization. My friend Allison Pollard writes about the Agile principle of safety and how it is imperative to our teams. She describes it as “acting in service of the team”. Here’s a few acts you can do in service of those around you:
Vary your approach. Teams of varying size and personality mean that there is the chance someone doesn’t always feel like they can speak up. That means you need to vary your method of gathering feedback from everyone. Corporate gatherings, anonymous surveys, one-on-one sessions can all be utilized for retrospectives. We can’t rely on just one if we want to be successful.
Personally, I don’t think this means you hide information once you have gathered it. Just be sensitive about how you do so. Just because you value transparency, doesn’t mean you air every single piece of dirty laundry.
Be consistent, no matter what. I was recently having a conversation with my boss about effective leadership, when he said something I appreciated. People don’t want perfection from their leaders as much as they want them to be consistent and attentive. If you draw a circle around yourself, then focus on caring for everyone outside of the circle first, it’s a step in the right direction.
It’s another gigantic step forward, though, if you can do it often enough for people to count on it from you. Only then will you have the respect and environment needed to help people speak up.
Understand conflict for what it is. The elephant in the room with this topic is the social ramifications of speaking up. Fear doesn’t necessarily come from apathy or ignorance. In my experience, there are societal fears with raising your hand. We all have that co-worker who gets some eye rolls for raising their hand, and we have to do everything we can to squash that suffocating behavior.
Even in the face of the most blatant injustice, there will be some who disagree with your view and provide counter-arguments. This creates a fear of having to have an open and frank dialogue where you don’t walk away arm-in-arm buddies. That might be the biggest fear of all. Heffernan encourages people to see conflict coming and lean into it, because it is always positive in the long run.
We have to be prepared and welcome the coming conflict, because the argument around it will make my ideas better. In the end, that squelches the fear and encourages a better team experience.