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

The presence of wilful blindness is a source of vast and often unacknowledged cost. The most significant and immeasurable costs are to those who experience harm, the service users, patients, victims of injustice, and the families and friends of loved ones, who have been damaged, or worse.​

Wilful blindness costs public services billions each year in compensation and litigation. And it costs the wider system billions more to implement and manage the monitoring structures and roles required to deal with adverse incidents after they occur. Scarce leadership and management attention and effort are also diverted from the many other areas that sorely need it.

The degrees of harm caused by wilful blindness are often talked of as first, second, and third. First-Harm is the damage caused directly to someone, Second-Harm is the indirect hurt caused to their loved ones, and Third-Harm is the destructive emotional impact on those who may have inadvertently caused the issue. Third-Harm can be incredibly destructive for individuals and teams, especially if the culture of the organisation does not enable people to speak openly about the mistakes they made and the problems they faced. In such cultures, the cycle of harm repeats itself as avoidable incidents are not learned from, and errors remain hidden from view in efforts to protect reputations and satisfy regulators.

The prevalence of wilful blindness is an indicator that the culture of an organisation may be harming its employees and its service users. It reflects a lack of openness and low levels of trust in and around the organisation which affects quality, staff engagement, retention, and recruitment.

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