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Wilful blindness, what it is, why it matters, and what it costs...

Wilful blindness is a useful catch-all phrase that can be applied to a range of naturally occurring human behaviours. It manifests itself in many ways and in many different situations and settings. You may know it as blind spot bias, conscious avoidance, moral myopia, motivated blindness, summit fever, tunnel vision, or wilful ignorance. It is closely related to the bystander effect, and despite its claim to be wilful, it is often though not always, an unconscious act. Like all behavioural labels, it exists on a continuum and is situationally specific.     

As a natural human behaviour wilful blindness is present to some degree in all of us and therefore in all organisations. However, it is especially prevalent in public services where an absence of choice, competition, and comparison, creates a climate in which the views of service users are often ignored. In the public sector the regulator and not the end-user, is widely regarded as the organisation's primary customer.

Wilful blindness matters. It is a barrier to learning and a source of vast unacknowledged financial cost and a cause of immeasurable personal pain and loss. Wilful blindness costs public organisations millions and taxpayers billions each year in avoidable compensation, litigation, and investigation costs. And it costs the wider system billions more to implement and manage all the many monitoring structures and roles needed to deal with avoidable incidents after they occur. Dealing with the impact of wilful blindness diverts scarce resources from the many other areas that sorely need them. The opportunity cost of these diverted resources is unknowably large and undoubtedly huge.

As a barrier to learning and insight, the presence of wilful blindness lies at the heart of many of the preventable deaths occurring in the care of the NHS, a number estimated at between ten and fifteen thousand each year. That's more than two Hillsborough tragedies quietly occurring each and every week and seven to ten times the number of people killed in driving-related incidents each year. The provision for the financial liabilities arising from adverse incidents occurring in the NHS alone currently stands at over £120B (one hundred and twenty billion pounds).

The most significant and unfathomable price is of course paid by the service users and patients who experience harm, and the families and friends of those who have been harmed, damaged, or worse.​ The human harm caused by wilful blindness is not only the first-harm caused directly to someone. It is the second-harm of the hurt caused to their loved ones, and the third-harm, sometimes called hidden harm, that causes emotional destruction to those who may have inadvertently caused the issue, and those who become unwittingly, sometimes unwillingly complicit in denying its occurrence.


Wilful blindness is in essence the polar opposite of self-awareness, understanding, and curiosity, at both the individual and organisational level. Wilfully blind organisations are storing up problems which will ultimately surface, harming employees and service users. The presence of unchecked wilful blindness leads to a process of ethical fading which is manifested in a lack of engagement, openness, and low levels of trust in and around the organisation. This has a direct impact on safety, quality, staff engagement, retention, recruitment, and operational costs. 

​Organisational cultures in which wilful blindness is allowed to thrive create a destructive cycle in which increasing amounts of scarce resources are used to deal with the growing costs of ever-rising levels of failure demand. Vital value-adding preventative activities are starved of attention as more and more funds and effort are used to firefight and deal with the next inevitable crisis. It doesn't have to be this way. Get in touch to find out how you and your organisation can become more wilfully aware and responsive... 

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