Wilful Blindness.

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In April 1801 a detachment of twelve ships from the British Navy, under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, pounded the Danish Navy in the harbor at Copenhagen. Since the battle did not go well in the beginning, Nelson’s commander Admiral Sir Hyde Parker signaled him to withdraw. However, Nelson raised the telescope to his blind right eye which he lost in the siege of Calvi 1794, and said to his flag captain Thomas Foley “I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal”. The battle lasted for several hours and in the end Nelson was victorious. It earned him the titles of Viscount and Baron.
Corporate leaders of the 21st century can neither expect a victory nor a knighthood if such acts of “wilful blindness” become evident. The most prominent case is a media tycoon who had apparently ignored emails about illegal practices. Lawmakers from the culture committee of the British parliament saw him as unfit to run the company. He is only the last in a row of politicians and managers accused of having wilfully ignored information, potentially subjecting themselves to prosecution.
“Wilful blindness is a term used in criminal law to refer to the acts of a person who intentionally fails to acknowledge information about matters that would make the person criminally liable. lt describes an attempt to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting oneself in a position of being unaware of facts which create liability”, defines uslegal.com.
The phenomenon is, however, not only found in these arenas of life nor is it always connected to criminal intent. Worldwide, debtors have a tendency to stop opening the letters from their creditors after some time and parents often turn a blind eye to problems like the obesity of their children for a long time.
Of course for the observer, not opening a creditor’s mail seems strange, however, it is not completely irrational. The debtor knows what the letter is about; a positive surprise is not expected. Whatever the exact amount may be now, it will be higher than in the last one and as before there is still no money to pay it. So, why open the letter and read the details? Also, the letter is in most cases only one of many. Negative information you cannot act on is often more of a burden than a help. In hindsight it seems evident that action should have been taken earlier. But when? To take on some credit regularly seems not to be problematic. There seems no need to act as long as it is small but it is hard to significantly reduce the burden when it becomes too much. The tipping point is easy to miss.
The qualification “wilful” summarizes a range of possible levels of processing in denial. The decision of Nelson was deliberate, but sometimes, as in the case of the letter from the creditor, the information is partially or fully ignored on an immediate and almost preconscious level. Bad news events one cannot act on become stressors and when their pressure exceeds one’s ability to cope, “blunting” is a prominent strategy. This was identified by eminent stress researchers Lazarus and Folkman and demonstrated in the 1980s. We do not want to see or know in detail what we do not like. Ignorance may not be bliss but it makes everyday life easier if there is not a solution to the problem.
In corporate life there often seem to be additional good reasons to give in to wilful blindness on a conscious level of processing. In contrast to his superior, Nelson saw himself on the road to victory and in his case local knowledge beat distant anxieties, but this is not always the case. Mostly, messages are less unequivocal but address questionable events and procedures. However, these are often informal solutions, effective but not really legal workarounds or traditions. Nearly everywhere in the world, offering a bribe to obtain a contract is strictly forbidden nowadays, but ten years ago such business promoting expenses were a regular position in accounting and there are still countries where such forms of business promotion are helpful. Nearly everybody who turned a blind eye to these sometimes grueling initiation rituals, often found in institutes of higher education and parts of the military, knew about them. Most people who had to deal with this problem later had taken part in them decades earlier. However, it needed publicized severe incidents to stop them.
Finally, in corporate life some diffusion of responsibility is already present at the beginning. Why should one be the first to blow the whistle? Why don’t other people who certainly know about it and should be more concerned, take up the issue? Margaret Hefernan roots the “wilful blindness” in companies to the dislike of “naysayers” and their fear of negative responses in the form of social isolation or getting fired. Also for private debtors, leaving things as they are is much more convenient than to change them and if it becomes excessive somebody will hopefully do something.
Preventing “wilful blindness” in consequence is in general a difficult task and even moreso in companies. It requires the self discipline to cope with negative events when it comes to appraising the matter as well as the courage to bring the matter up. To create a corporate culture in which employers feel empowered to do so is a question of leadership. It is however, worthwhile to create a culture of trust, honesty and openness in which open eyes are more rewarded than closed ones. In many cases companies do not stumble over the actual problem but the way it is treated.