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Is It Time To Speak Up? Letting Go of Willful Blindness at Work

Are you too quiet?

A legendary college football coach takes no public action after his assistant witnesses a former staff member abusing a child in the school locker room showers .  .  .

At least 21 Security Exchange Commission workers overlook or ignore several tips and curious findings while investigating the actions of a financial manager named Bernie Madoff . . .

Leaders at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World continue to authorize hacking of celebrity and government phones, even after other colleagues were fined or caught several times before . . .

You notice something that’s not right, or out-of-sync in your organization. . . and you do nothing. . .

We now know that the first three statements are true. We also know, straight from the headlines, the consequences that resulted from each of these decisions (or more accurately, the consequences from the choices not to decide.)

It’s my sincere wish that the fourth statement is never true for you, that you work in a place filled with honest conversation, respect, and commitment not only to its work but to its people. But from talking to some of you about this topic in the past week, I know that’s not the case.

This isn’t an article about the ethics or internal failures of any of those organizations, or even about the potential failures of your own organization. This is about you and me, and what we choose to see, say and do.  It is about the true tests of wearing our red capes at work.

Willful Blindness

During the Enron trials of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the judge referenced the legal concept of “willful blindness,” which means that if there is knowledge you could have had or should have had but chose not to have, you are still responsible. Author Margaret Heffernan discusses this in her book, “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.”

In an interview with NPR, Heffernan talks about the extensive research about our desire to conform, especially in the workplace. “Given the choice between giving a wrong answer that keeps you part of the group, or a right answer that makes you an outsider, most people would rather give a wrong answer. There is enormous psychological pressure on individuals to do what the organization wants and what their boss wants.”

Sure , the pressure is there. But I’ve said before, you are most certainly not most people.

Bringing Our Humanity to Work

I’ve done a lot of writing and reflection on what I experienced in my years working both in a corporate environment and consulting inside multiple large organizations, and what I see through the eyes of my clients now. Much of that writing will never show up here but continues to teach me that even smart, well-intentioned people can get their humanity turned off at work if they aren’t paying attention.

And it also teaches me that it’s easier than we think to keep our humanity turned on–but we have to give it some attention and space, two things that are in short supply in today’s world.

As we learn from what happened in all of these public situations, let’s laser down to what might be happening in your own office backyard. Are you seeing–and saying–the things that are really happening at work that go against what you value and believe?

Here’s my confession–I am painfully aware I’ve chosen willful blindness in the past. Sure, I can make excuses–so busy, distracted, choosing short-term ease and hoping for no long-term consquences, etc. But I know for a fact I’ve done these things:

  • Listening to a colleague insult or  ridicule someone else–and never pointing it out;
  • Treating a less experienced or lower level employees without regard, as an object rather than a person;
  • Not speaking up in a meeting when I believed a decision to be wrong, instead hoping that it would go away when others realized it, too.

I’m sure there are more places where I could have made a difference, been more human, wore my red cape. So lesson learned. I’ll continue to work to avoid blindness, to have eyes–and mouth–wide open.

How about you? What’s now visible when you look up and see?  It could be time to speak up.


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