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Understanding wilful blindness and its human and operational cost...

The presence of wilful blindness is a source of incredible yet often unacknowledged cost. The most important and immeasurable costs are of course to those who have experienced harm, service users, patients, victims of injustice, and the families and friends, who have seen loved ones harmed or worse.​

And wilful blindness is costing public services billions of pounds each year in compensation and litigation costs. Operationally, it also costs the wider system billions annually due to the cost of the resources needed to manage and oversee the monitoring structures and roles required to deal with adverse incidents after they occur. These amounts do not take into account the diversion of scarce leadership and management attention and resources from the numerous other areas that sorely need it.

The degree of harm caused is often talked of as first, second, and third harm. And while first harm, the damage caused directly to a person, and the second harm caused to their loved ones, are talked of most often, third harm, the impact on those that often inadvertently caused the harm, can be incredibly destructive at the individual and team level. The culture of too many organisations, public, private, and voluntary, does not enable or encourage people to speak openly about mistakes or problems. Incidents are not learned from as errors are hidden from view to protect reputations and satisfy regulators.

The prevalence of wilful blindness is a strong indicator that the culture of an organisation is toxic and potentially harmful to its employees and service users. It highlights a lack of openness and low levels of trust and engagement in and around the organisation, which in turn lead to other symptoms; variances in quality, adverse incidents, reputational issues, and difficulty retaining and recruiting staff.

Organisational cultures in which wilful blindness thrive create a vicious circle in which already scarce resources are used to deal with handling and managing the spiraling costs associated with ever-increasing levels of failure demand. Value-adding preventative activities are starved of resources as more and more funds are needed to firefight and deal with the next crisis. But it doesn't have to be this way...