Why Carillion couldn't open its eyes

Willful blindness can lead perfectly sensible people to do foolish things, says change consultant Caryn Vanstone.

by Caryn Vanstone
Last Updated: 06 Feb 2018

Despite warning signs, many were surprised by the sudden collapse of the UK’s second biggest construction company last month. What is emerging from the Carillion mess, however, is remarkably unsurprising. In fact, it repeats a pattern all too familiar to those who research corporate disasters: willful blindness.

Willful blindness occurs when individuals fail to see, acknowledge or act on problems in plain sight. Much of this process is unconscious. As humans, we want to have existing beliefs confirmed, and our neuro-psychology prevents us from seeing something if it conflicts with implicit mental models. 

Put simply, we adjust reality to fit what makes us comfortable or avoids anxiety, and are highly likely to ‘not notice’ things that will cause us to feel shameful, guilty or compelled to confront difficulty. 

It is important to note that willful blindness exists in all aspects of ordinary life, both personal and professional – in fact, it is probably essential to our couples, families and communities. 

However, it can cause companies to stray, unchecked, down the wrong path when it meets a culture which is unreflective, over-worked and/or has strong power hierarchies which are hard to challenge. It has contributed to many corporate disasters, from the Libor-rigging in the banking sector in 2012 – implicating Barclays, RBS, UBS and Deutsche Bank – to VW’s ‘dieselgate’, and BP’s Deepwater Horizon.

Whilst the specifics are yet to be revealed, we know that in the face of blatant financial problems, Carillion appears to have carried on as if this was not the case. Leaders accepted new contracts knowing suppliers could not be paid, and, in the latest allegation, dished out bonuses to bosses at the expense of paying into pension schemes. What makes people go along with these decisions when they seem wrong? Why does it not get stopped or called out? 

In some ways, willful blindness is part of the social contract we enter into at work. Official values like ‘Integrity’ are less powerful in practice than the unconscious patterns we soak up from those around us, and copy without thinking, in order to fit in. People unconsciously trade a certain amount of freedom to think, speak and act for the security of belonging – even if this contradicts what we intellectually know is right.

It is easy to make ourselves feel better by vilifying individuals that have consciously brought a company into disrepute. While it is important to find and punish those who have acted with illegal or unethical intent, it can be used (and abused) as a way of avoiding reflecting on the important role played unconsciously by perfectly ordinary people (all of us!), when we choose not to notice or challenge something as a way of avoiding personal distress or risk to our own security. 

This ‘bystanding’ behaviour is a contributor to why patterns of financial misconduct, criminal fraud, sexual harassment, unequal pay or dangerous safety practices are ‘allowed’ to continue for decades. 

With the potential dangers of willful blindness clear, and knowing that much of it is not subject to conscious choice, what can leaders do?

  • Introduce disturbance – create disruptions to patterns and seed provocative questions
  • Become a more reflective leader – mindful attention, enough time and space to consciously re-engage ‘beginners’ eyes’
  • Take deliberate actions that notice, reinforce and enable uncomfortable challenge.

Many execs, much like kings of old, are fed on a diet of what they want to hear by ‘courtiers’ who seek promotion, power and reward from the king, without overtly challenging their power - which might result in being excluded or disempowered.  Organisations really need the ancient role of the ‘jester’, historically an outsider with nothing to gain or lose.

The jester could never become part of the power structure, and often had radically different life experience and mental models to those in power. They could hold a mirror up to that which was being missed, to assumptions, dangerous mental patterns, and other aspects of blindness within the ‘court’. If this position had been filled within Carillion, perhaps the organisation could have opened its eyes.

Who is your ‘jester’, and do they have the courage and skill to make you sufficiently uncomfortable to your own ‘blindness’? 

Caryn Vanstone is a director at Lacerta Consulting.

Image credit: Mukphotos/Shutterstock

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