Willful Blindness

see no evil

We heard last time from Mats Alvesson and André Spicer and their book The Stupidity Paradox about “functional stupidity” — what happens when we stop thinking for ourselves and go along with the dumbing-down of our workplaces.

Prof. Spicer gave a TEDx Talk based on the book, beginning with a story from first-year torts:  Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company. You may recall that Ford’s upper management went ahead with the Pinto as originally designed, despite the infamous “Pinto Memo” finding that $11.00 worth of alterations per vehicle would have made it a whole lot safer. The result was the largest product liability damage award ever against a car manufacturer (as of that time). Clearly a case of “functional stupidity.”

Functional stupidity is the result of what psychologists call “cognitive bias”:  engaging with experience only after we’ve filtered it first to conform to our habitual perceptions, assumptions, and prejudices. Journalist, filmmaker, and CEO Margaret Hefferman wrote the book on the subject:  Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril (2011). Here’s her TED talk, and here’s a BrainPickings article about her book and about cognitive bias in general. Ms. Heffernan is a marvelous storyteller — she recounts story after jaw-dropping story from all arenas of life.

Cognitive bias is especially ironic in the legal profession, since the law itself doesn’t let you get away with it:  the rule of “willful blindness” makes you culpable if you intentionally decide not to know about wrongdoing or deliberately fail to make a reasonable inquiry into it. “See no evil” isn’t going to fly.

How can we shake off our cognitive biases? As a friend of mine says, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” Not only can’t we see them, we don’t want to either — and it doesn’t work to make them someone else’s problem. I ran several Google searches looking for articles about lack of independent thinking in the workplaces. Tweak my search as I might, it kept turning up advice like this one from Harvard Business Review, which trots out this worn out bit of conventional management advice:  “It’s the employees’ fault, so here’s how a manager can fix them.” I really expected more from the HBR.

Instead of getting occupied with the speck in someone else eye when we’ve got a log in ours, we might follow the example of Ray Dalio, founder and chairman of hedge fund heavyweight Bridgewater Associates, who created a firm culture around “radical truth and radical transparency.” This is from the company’s website:

“Our unique success is the direct result of our unique way of being. We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.”

That last line is worth repeating:

“It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence
that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.”

Mr. Dalio’s firm culture is as cognitive-bias-busting as they come. If you’re intrigued, you might treat yourself to his talk. Click here or on the image below and scroll down a couple turns.

Ray Dalio Bridgewater TED talk

Whether or not you’re inclined to embrace Bridgewater’s radical firm culture, learning to see past our biases and get a fresh look might be a good addition to a New Year’s Resolutions list. Just an idea….

We’ll continue our search for a new perspective on economics and the workplace in 2018.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to "anyone wants to create change in their workplaces and personal lives." He draws insight and perspective from his prior career in the law, business, and consulting, also from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, technology, and life experience.

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