Tuesday, November 13, 2012
We've all seen the classic image of the ostrich with legs splayed apart, it’s bum up I the air and its head in the sand. If you get close to rabbits they will, more often than not, just sit still and hope that if they don’t move then you won’t see them. Now, as supposedly the most intelligent of primates and hence, all species on Earth, we recognise the silliness of this behaviour. We know that the strategy is ineffective and despite what the ostrich and the rabbit are doing there are potentially very negative consequences that neither have anticipated: much better to pretend that the threat will go away. I leave your imagination to construct what those consequences might be.
If you dig into your experience just a little you’ll recognise that the most intelligent of the primates also engages in this sort of behaviour in almost plague proportions. We are experts at ignoring the evidence that is before us, being oblivious to warning signs, act on emotion rather than fact, ignore the science and go with belief, and largely keep on doing what obviously does not work. We are especially brilliant at doing more of what doesn’t work in strange belief that somehow things will change. It’s a bit like how when we are talking to someone in a foreign country who doesn’t understand our language (often English) that shouting our request louder will somehow make them understand.
So, for example: we ignore the signs of a failing relationship and carry on doing the same things that are putting in jeopardy; our addictive behaviour is causing health, financial and relationship problems but we keep on engaging in the behaviour; we are being bullied and keep on going back for more; we know a decision is flawed but don’t speak up; the climate is warming but we fail to take action; and the pressure is rising to dangerous levels in the undersea oil drilling well but nothing is said because the decision to stop drilling would be unpopular. And so on.
The most important thing about the all the examples of head in the sand phenomena above, and all others that I can think of, is that the consequences of not acting end up being more severe than if we had done something earlier: no matter how uncomfortable it may have been. While there are ways in which we keep riding the dead horse even though clearly it is time to dismount (old North Indian American saying apparently), I want to focus here on organisations and leadership, or lack of it but I’m sure you can extrapolate to other areas of life.
Head in the sand phenomena fall into two categories. There are those where we know fully consciously what the problem is and what we are doing. We know that the situation is unhealthy, dangerous, or causing difficulties but we decide not to do anything about it. Mostly this occurs out of fear: that the consequences for us personally are too great. Sometimes it is lack of interest or engagement so that the person just doesn’t care: ‘it’s not my problem’.
My guess is that you’ve seen this happen in your place of work or may have responded this way yourself. Both fear and lack of engagement are common phenomena in organisations and can be avoided by good leadership. There is absolutely no reason why cultures of fear and disengagement need to exist. Sadly their consequences are far reaching. One of the problems with being a CEO, a government minister, or potentate is that they often don’t know what’s really happening in their organisation. Underlings, advisors and others are know to shield the boss from bad news, to not ask the difficult question, to not tell it the way it is, because of the fear of consequences. And it is the boss’ behaviour that is at the heart of this problem. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be sheeted back to a culture where productivity was valued above safety and where bad news was not received well.
Humans mostly don’t like conflict. Consequently, we avoid those difficult conversations, taking on the bully, telling the manager what she doesn’t want to know, and ignoring the evidence to ensure a peaceful life. We also avoid speaking up because we don’t want to be unpopular. Being part of the tribe is important to survival and being ostracised is a frightening prospect: we like to be liked. I think we need to train children at an early age to manage both these issues better and also to be more open to receiving news that we may not want to hear.
I’ve worked, as a consultant, with quite a number of organisations where people are unhappy, there is a high turnover of staff, things are not going well, there is low engagement of staff and productivity is poor. I get asked to come in and solve the problem. Sometimes this happens because a new manager has arrived and recognises the problem and wants help to fix it-which is the best kind of assignment. On other occasions it becomes clear that the problem is actually the boss and the culture that has developed due to poor leadership. This is the more tricky and sometimes impossible assignment because how do you tell a boss that they are stuffing things up without the obvious repercussions. The conspiracy of silence rules in organisations in the same way it can rule in a family with an abusive parent.
The other category of head in the sand phenomena is what is known as denial. Here we unconsciously put the problem aside because it is just too scary to think about or just too hard to manage. It makes good sense to do this but is every bit as problematic as the conscious variety of burying one’s head in the sand: it’s just a bit harder to confront at times.
The way to avoid the head in the sand culture is entirely in the hands of the leaders of the organisation through the well-known application of transformational leadership. That is, creating a culture where people have the coeur de lion (the heart of the lion), the courage to speak up, to say the difficult things. This means developing trusting relationships, fully involving people in decision-making, high participation, enabling autonomy, creating a sense of real purpose, ensuring intrinsic rewards, and developing openness. These are the conditions that create a healthy workplace, a healthy tribe as compared to the neurotic organisation in which fear, distrust, negativity and lack of engagement rule: where avoidance is the result.
We need to have the courage to say it the way it is and the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear. These are not easy things to do but courageous leadership can enable them.