What is wilful blindness?
The term has its roots in the English court system. Sometimes referred to as the ostrich instruction it is also known as conscious avoidance, wilful ignorance, contrived ignorance, intentional ignorance, or Nelsonian ("Ships, I see no ships") knowledge.
Wilful blindness is present in every aspect of our lives and wider society. The word wilful is a misnomer because it is often an unconscious act, a coping mechanism we employ to make sense of the world we live in and the organisations we work for.
Our propensity for wilful blindness stems from our evolutionary need for acceptance. To be excluded from the group when we were hunter-gatherers was a sentence to death by starvation, predation, or disease. Not rocking the boat or upsetting the hierarchy was key to avoiding exclusion from the groups on whom our lives and survival depended.
Why does it matter?
The once essential ability to rationalize and turn a blind eye that we learned and acquired to retain our membership of the group and ensure our survival, no longer serves us as usefully as it did. In the modern world, it has increasingly significant downsides.
Our individual and collective wilful blindness means that many of the issues we should be paying attention to fail to register on our personal and collective radar. As Margaret Heffernan so eloquently put it, "We are ignoring the obvious at our peril".
When people fail to challenge wrongdoing or raise concerns about poor practice in organisations, it is often because they are afraid of speaking up, of being seen as potential boat-rockers and risking their place in the group. However, staying silent in such situations creates closed cultures, and in healthcare, it can lead to patient harm and preventable deaths.
How to address it...
Any journey toward improvement begins with understanding. The starting point to address wilful blindness is to acknowledge its presence as a naturally occurring condition to be aware of, understood, and managed. Wilful blindness and its many related biases are something we are all subject to and live with individually and collectively.
The aha moment for many people comes when they see how much of their behavior, actions, responses, and thinking are driven by their deep-seated need to belong and can acknowledge without judgement that the need to rationalize and ignore things that make us uncomfortable is part of being human.
The journey toward individual and organisational wilful awareness is continuous. The good news is there are some simple measures and tried and trusted methods that can help in the transition.