October 2013

October 4th, 2013 by Jennie O'Reilly

On a recent train journey I was at a loose end and decided to log into TED (http://www.ted.com/talks) to have a nosy at what was new to the site.  For those that aren’t familiar, TED is a website that hosts countless videos.  These videos are of inspiring speakers sharing ideas, anecdotes and creative thinking on subjects they’re passionate about.  It’s pretty compelling viewing and is a great for feeding your curiosity, deepening your knowledge and expanding horizons on a range of different topics.  TED talks’ mantra is ‘Ideas worth spreading’ – and that’s exactly how this principle works – you view, you’re inspired, you spread the word...

On this particular train ride, the name of a TED talk captured my imagination and sparked curiosity. It was entitled ‘The Dangers of Wilful Blindness’.  I’m not sure what it was about that title that made me go on to view the video – but I’m really glad I did.  In it, speaker Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns - like conflict avoidance and selective ‘blindness’- that can lead us towards making errors in judgement.  Much of her talk focuses on the story of Gayla Benefield, a woman who discovered an awful secret about her hometown that meant its mortality rate was 80 times higher than anywhere else in the U.S.  When she tried to tell people about what she’d discovered, she learned an even more shocking truth: People didn’t want to know.

This she terms ‘Wilful Blindness’.  Wilful blindness is a legal concept which means if there is information you could know or should know, but you somehow manage not to know, you are ‘Wilfully blind’ – ie. You have chosen not to know.  Heffernan talks about this concept in relation to recent political and social events – but also looks at its impact at micro level – in people’s homes, communities and within organisations...

During her research, Heffernan interviewed a number of individuals within organisations across the US and Europe – asking, ‘Do you feel there are issues at work that people are afraid to raise?’.  85% of respondents answered ‘Yes’.   85%!  So, 85% realised there were issues, but chose not to say anything about them.  This struck a chord with me in terms of the work we do at Steps.  You could say that our approach goes some way to help tackle ‘Wilful Blindness’ – in that it makes visible those issues which may otherwise go untalked about.  By enacting a situation or challenge, we are equipping people with the power to know and understand an issue more deeply.

But there is still a greater challenge here.  First we need to get ‘into’ an organisation and this is where Wilful Blindness can be a much more challenging barrier.  How can we equip HR and L&D professionals to overcome Wilful Blindness within their workplace – whether it be their own Wilful Blindness, or that of others?  How can we encourage organisations to tackle issues head on, challenging a wider organisational culture of Wilful Blindness and mitigating the risk of Wilful Blindness in the future?   It strikes me that an integral part of Inspiring People to Act Differently is as much about challenging Wilful Blindness as it is about raising awareness or developing confidence around a skill or topic.  How can we help individuals to be more aware of their own blindspots as well as equipping them to challenge their colleagues’ blindspots more effectively?

There is no easy answer to this stuff, it’s a deep-rooted psychological concept – integral to the human condition... But it’s also a fascinating observation on Heffernan’s part and a talk that really got me thinking...  Have a look and see what you think -



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