Willful blindness is a term used in law to describe a situation in which a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping himself or herself unaware of facts that would render him or her liable.

In other words, turning a blind eye to things that clearly should have been noticed.

Everyday examples of willful blindness include:

  • Self-Preservation: You see someone you think could be trying to break into a car. Yet you simply walk away, pretending not to notice, and trying to forget you saw it. In this case willful blindness might be a self-preservation mechanism to avoid potential conflict and harm.
  • Confirmation Bias: In 1989 in New York there was the classic case of the ‘Central Park Five’ who were five young black youths falsely convicted and sentenced to jail for the mugging and rape of a white female jogger. The police were affected by Confirmation Bias and overlooked the lack of DNA and other evidence because their minds were already set on these young men and they desperately wanted a result. The actual attacker was revealed some 12 years later and the five innocent people were subsequently released. Confirmation bias is an unconscious act and affects many of our decisions.

What could be happening in your business?

At any time in a business there are likely to be situations where willful blindness is occurring. For a number of reasons decision makers are ignoring things that ultimately are impacting the performance or culture of the business.

In practice these are literally ‘blind spots’ in the business that are intentionally overlooked or not brought into conscious thinking when considering options for the business.

How does willful blindness happen?

  • Ignoring poor performance by employees because of non-performance-related factors such as ‘likeability’ or being a ‘family member’ where greater leeway is often given.
  • Being too emotionally connected to a goal or outcome so that the (usually slow) progress and the facts about why that is happening are ignored. Consequently corrective action is not considered nor taken.
  • Measures of performance do not exist. Within a business this is often noticeable through goals, targets, or KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) that are absent, incomplete, or vague.
  • Managers are too busy to take the time to step back and objectively review strategy and performance.
  • Assuming external factors are the cause of poor performance and therefore are outside of the company’s control.

A real life situation

As a Business and Performance Coach I had been working with a client on their general business development activities. Even though it was outside the original scope of work I noted some potential issues with a manager who was employed in one their subsidiary companies.

I expressed my concerns to the owners that (in my opinion) this manager was ‘coasting’ and could deliver a lot more in terms of sales and overall performance. Although they agreed in principle with my assessment they refused to address any of the issues. They let the manager continue on in his own way.

This long standing employee eventually resigned.

Following a postmortem of the situation with the owners it was identified that this situation exhibited most of the characteristics of willful blindness. Unfortunately my client was reluctant to act when I first tabled these issues with them. Now they regretted their inaction.

From experience I believe the characteristics, or symptoms, of willful blindness can be categorised under either Company Culture or Operational Processes.

Company Culture

  • This was a family business with a friendly family culture which meant they trusted people, preferred not to put people under pressure and on the whole sought to avoid confrontation.
  • As a result of being a family business they tended to take a soft approach to family members who under-performed and in doing so allowed that tolerance to creep into the business as a whole, even to staff who were not family members.
  • People were afraid to speak their mind and possibly ‘rock the boat’ so they avoided saying anything or providing suggestions that the business really needed to hear. This became apparent when the manager left and all the negative thoughts and feedback from other team members started to emerge.

Operational Processes

  • Allowing the manager to set their own business goals without thorough scrutiny from the business owners. He continued to set ‘safe’ rather than ‘stretch’ goals which the management tacitly endorsed.
  • Performance Management processes were too lenient. For example the company had Financial Budgets in place but when they were not being met the conclusion drawn was often ‘we need to try harder’ but there was no plan of action created.
  • Even though the business had Job Descriptions with KPI’s including their measurement criteria they were not strictly monitored and enforced. In particular there was a lack of consequences for not achieving the desired performance benchmarks.
  • Formal performance appraisal processes were not being conducted.
  • The agenda and process of running meetings meant every meeting was mainly ‘conversational’ and reinforced what they already knew, rather than tackling and resolving tough challenges.

None of these symptoms were a secret.

It would have been obvious to anyone who looked that these issues existed. However willful blindness prevents people from looking at what they don’t want to see. That’s the insidious danger of it.


8 tactics to avoid being caught in the willful blindness trap

1) Raise company standards

The business should methodically review some or all of its key processes on an annual basis and pose the question, ‘where and how can we do better’; where and how can we raise the bar on performance? This strategy will go a long way to ensuring the business does not stay in a type of ‘comfort zone’ that allows Wilful Blindness to creep in.

2) Apply more rigor to performance management processes

Ensure they are in place at a business and personal level with the right questions being asked with rigor when performance lags. This means established processes are in place to ensure these discussions take place on a regular basis over the course of twelve months and are not simply on an ad hoc basis.

3) Test assumptions behind projections

When budgets and estimates are being produced ensure that key assumptions are identified which allows for greater scrutiny during the performance review processes. If performance is under where it should be then it’s likely to be one of the underlying assumptions is incorrect. This in turn may lead to discussions around why and whether the current forward projections are in jeopardy and need to be revised.

4) The Vulcanology Report

The key role of a Vulcanologist is to predict the likelihood of a major volcanic eruption. In a business sense this type of ‘sensitivity analysis’ needs to be in place as well. The business needs to know if it’s on track and if off track what corrective action needs to be taken. This can take the form of a type of ‘disruptive dashboard report’ with someone assigned to monitor and report on all times.

5) Allocate time to research and innovation

Whilst it’s important to allocate energy and time on what the business needs to do today, the future also needs consideration. In today’s rapidly changing world this has never been more important. Research could be conducted to determine such things as the importance of new and emerging markets, competitive threats (existing and new), pending government legislation, new and substitute products, and more. Again the key thing is it needs to be a process and not simply an afterthought or ‘wait until the changes are here and then we’ll deal with it’ approach as that could be far too late.

6) Premortem/devil’s advocate

This is a very powerful process and one we are advocates for. This is the question posed when evaluating any proposal/project. Fast forward 12 months and pose the question, “This project did not work because?”

This prompts the team to think of all the possible reasons this project could go wrong in advance. It forces the business to list and test the assumptions made in order to determine if something major has been overlooked.

It’s important that this does not become a ‘nit picking’ exercise, trying to find minor faults everywhere. The filtering process must ensure only the mission critical potential problems or risks are identified. Once done that provides the opportunity for those risks to be examined and strategies implemented to overcome.

7) Ask better quality questions

Asking the right question is a bit of an art form. It’s not something that is readily taught in schools or easily learned in everyday life. It’s interesting to note that the ‘right answer to the wrong question is still technically the wrong answer’ and that answer can be downright dangerous to the business.

To demonstrate this point here are a few simple examples.

Question posed to HR Manager about a particular team member

Fair question:
“How’s Mary doing?” [This may get you a general answer like “She’s doing fine”.]

Better question:
“How is Mary doing with the new project, and is there any aspect of her last performance appraisal goals that we should be following up on with her?” [This should elicit a deeper more specific answer that enables progress.]

Question posed to Sales Manager about competitor activity

Fair question:
“Should we be worried about our competition?”

Better question:
“Can you tell me what our competitors strategies are and what evidence you have to support that? And if you feel we should be worried please explain why.”

Questions asked during meetings

The challenge during a meeting, especially when asking for information on which to base a decision, is to ask more specific questions. Sometimes that may be difficult as you might not want to put someone on the spot or ‘rock the boat’ (so to speak). That is why the business culture should encourage this type of vigorous debate in order to ensure the best decisions are being made.

8) Create better meeting agendas

There is an old adage that says ‘a meeting without an agenda will achieve everything on it’. It’s therefore imperative that all meetings are called with purposeful outcomes in mind and that agenda items reflect achieving those desired outcomes.

Of equal importance is how well the meeting is run and chaired. It’s important that people are provided with the opportunity to discuss and challenge items that require thoughtful analysis before decisions are taken. Of course if they don’t appear on the agenda in the first place then they will not get discussed so that’s the vital first step.

Conclusion

Far too many businesses find themselves in the position of saying:

Well, with the benefit of hindsight we might have done things differently.

The point is, you don’t have to rely on hindsight.

FORESIGHT IS ALL AROUND US … if we simply take the time to look.

Be aware of the two categories of willful blindness (Culture and Operations) that can sneak into your business. And utilise the eight tactics listed to create a positive environment for your team.

If you would like to discuss options to objectively review your business and avoid the problems of willful blindness contact us.