Last year Margaret Heffernan, author of the book ‘Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’, visited Bradford to give a talk in the School of Management’s guest lecture series which are open to local businesses. The theme of the talk was that managers and businesses fail sometimes to see the most obvious things and it is often those things that sow the seeds of their destruction. Amongst examples Margaret provided at the time were the Catholic Church, the subprime mortgage lenders and BP’s safety record. The latest example of wilful blindness is Rupert Murdoch’s failure to recognise the issue of phone hacking in his organisation.
What can Bradford companies do to avoid this trap? How can organisations ensure that they can differentiate between doing things right to grow the business and doing the right thing by employees and society for a sustainable business? I would suggest some of the following:
- Recognise that sometimes your employees tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than the truth, especially if it exposes them in some way as ‘wrongdoers’.
- Communicate at all levels on an informal basis – it is amazing what you find out by chance about your business from a chance discussion with an employee.
- Organise formal challenge sessions for your strategy and your business operations – encouraging participants to work through different scenarios to their logical conclusion.
- Ask the questions: what is right for the business, what is right for the employees, what is right for society, what is right for the environment and what is morally right for me as an individual?
- Ensure your board of directors come from diverse backgrounds – this helps to avoid groupthink and complacency with the way we do things around here.
The theme of wilful blindness belongs to the wider debate on building sustainable businesses that contribute to society and protect our environment. It is critical for businesses to generate profits for reinvestment and growth, but we need new business models for the future that change the focus from profit alone, to a triple bottom line – economic, social and environmental.