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article imageHow willful blindness infects corporate culture across the world Special

By David Silverberg     Jul 26, 2011 in Business
An expert on willful blindness explains why companies, such as News Corp, have a difficult time rooting out poisonous practises harming their brand. Margaret Heffernan also suggests a few tips for cleaning house.
When the Murdochs appeared at a British hearing to face the phone-hacking questions in person, James Murdoch was asked if he heard about the term "willful blindness." He stumbled over his words and asked if there was a specific question about the phrase. He wasn't sure how to answer. Here was a quick way to summarize the News Corp scandal and the Murdochs were having none of it.
Were they being willfully blind to, well, their own company-wide blindness? Digital Journal spoke to Margaret Heffernan to learn more about this epidemic in corporate culture. The author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Heffernan often comments on the many disgraces befalling businesses across the world.
In large organization like News Corp, the problem goes beyond personal failures. It's structural, she points out. "It is impossible as chief executive to know everything going on, but it's part of his responsibility to ensure what is important comes to top."
CEO of News Corporation Europe and Asia  James Murdoch (left)  and media icon Rupert Murdoch  testif...
CEO of News Corporation Europe and Asia, James Murdoch (left), and media icon Rupert Murdoch, testify before a House of Commons committee in London
Footage from livestream
She believes News Corp was surrounded by yesmen. Very few staffers could have felt that they had power or the prerogative to ask some hard questions, Heffernan adds. "Everyone was dependent on the Murdochs. That doesn't create an environment where someone will bring you bad news."
Willful blindness is not just severely affecting a transparent workplace in the West. Heffernan says companies across the world have always turned away when they saw under-handed activities, whether they're Chinese factories making dangerous products or genocides spreading across Africa. "I'd love to point out a place immune from willful blindness but I can't."
How does this blindness spread so widely? Heffernan refers to a psychological theory called diffusion of responsibility - lots of people see what someone else sees and figures "Surely someone will do something, but I don't have to." Also called the bystander effect, we see it often during public crimes, but also in any industry you can name. Who wants to out themselves as the whisteblower, right?
Says Heffernan, "Speaking up takes courage and with the rise of social media it's easier to be a whistelblower, look at WikiLleaks. But companies can save themselves grief by approaching their employees and listening to their problem."
Combatting willful blindness is surprisingly simple, she points out. She likes what Anita Roddick did as CEO of The Body Shop: when staff were first hired, she gave them a red envelope and told them to write anything in the envelope that made them uncomfortable. It could be anonymous if they preferred. Roddick assured staff she would read everything sent to her in red envelopes...and she did.
"This is more than a symbolic gesture," Heffernan notes, "Roddick implemented an easy way to identify the problematic processes and individuals within her company."
News Corp could steer itself in the right direction by opening their eyes and ears to their internal complaints. It won't be pretty. But it'll be worth it. "These companies need to solve problems before they get out of hand," she says.
"If companies can create processes and an environment to allow people to speak up, they are limiting the risk of things going wrong but they are also surfacing problems they wouldn’t see any other way," she says.
Heffernan is next working on a book about the U.S. banking collapse, due out in 2013. She'll investigate why competition doesn't pan out like it's supposed to in this sector. And if she continues to write books on the endemic problem of willful blindness, she won't be running out of material anytime soon.
More about willful blindness, margaret heffernan, News Corp, Murdoch, phone hacking
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