Business Ethics blog - Spring Arbor University

How to tackle issues in the workplace that employees are afraid to bring up

Is your organization turning a blind eye to information that you could and should know, but have decided not to know? Deliberate indifference can hurt companies a variety of ways.

The legal term for it is “willful blindness.” Think of it as turning a blind eye to undesirable information. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of willful blindness in the world. It can cause the downfall of an organization’s leadership and culture. Fear-trampled employees don’t do a thing for your business.

The culture of a company has to be one that creates transparency and reduces fear in a workplace. Leaders must support that culture. How? They can hold people accountable in a firm and fair way. Leaders can use mistakes as an opportunity for learning. Cultures and leaders should be fostered that reward employees for speaking clearly, openly and professionally.

Examples of willful blindness include medical interns scheduled to work for 24 shifts although hospitals are aware of the safety problems caused by lack of sleep. Or, how about banks who promoted selling mortgages to people they knew could not afford them in the long-run?

Occurrences such as these exist because at least one person turned a blind eye. In many of these instances, the consequences were most catastrophic when many people turned a blind eye, which happens often in the workplace.

Everyday examples can have damaging effects. For instance, when executives decide not to survey their employees because they are going through a challenging time and are afraid of what they will find. The executives may hide or put the completed surveys in a drawer in the hope that no one will ever know about them – even though the employees already know what the culture is like.

Multiple studies show that 85% of employees across the globe respond “yes” to the question: “Are there issues in the workplace that people are afraid to bring up?” How can you fix what you refuse to acknowledge?

Companies can be damaged by willful blindness in many ways:

  • Productivity
  • Safety
  • Innovation
  • Ethics

A change of mindset is necessary for tackling workplace conflict. Nipping a workplace problem in the bud is preferable to a lengthy dispute. The challenge is to move organization towards tackling workplace issues head on at an early stage. In order to do this, managers must be properly equipped.

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85% of corporations in the U.S. acknowledge willful blindness.

In her 2013 TED Talk, business leader and author Margaret Heffernan presented her insights after examining willful blindness in the workplace saying, “Companies that have been studied for willful blindness can be asked questions like, ‘Are there issues in the workplace that people are afraid to raise’ And when academics have done studies like this of corporations in the US, what they find is that 85% of people said yes. The majority of people know that there is a problem, but they won’t say anything.”

As far as from the perspective on individual accountability, there may be a linear connection between willful blindness and self-awareness. When a person decides to understand why they are willfully blind about an issue, they can develop the ability to transition to a new frame of reference. That is why a pattern of communication might impede productivity in the workplace, and retaining a certain perspective may be ignoring what is right in front of you to see.

In order to successfully navigate tough workplace issues, organizations must pay particular attention to those they bring into their workplace.

Some key methods to eliminate willful blindness are:

  • Create self-awareness by using feedback tools
  • Rely upon data to make decisions
  • Foster an environment where people are encouraged to play devil’s advocate.
  • Develop benchmarks for feedback to learn whether people are able to tell the truth or if they are suffering from burnout so you can identify problem areas in the workplace
  • Hire external resources to assist you in seeing your blind spots and help the organization remove tunnel vision

By enhancing culture, developing leadership and encouraging a strong hiring process, willful blindness can be alleviated in the workplace.

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