Face up to your problems before they get out of hand, says Charles Handy
I was lying in bed looking at the ceiling when I noticed a brown stain in one corner. Oh dear, I thought. My neighbour above has got a leak somewhere, what a nuisance.
It wasn’t the money (the insurance would cover that), it was the hassle I dreaded. And the negotiations. He was a difficult guy.
So I shut my eyes, got up, got dressed and went about my work. I forgot all about it for a time. Perhaps in the hot weather it will dry out, I thought.
Alas, when I went to lie down in the afternoon, the stain was still there. Oh dear, I thought, and concentrated on the rest of the ceiling which was crystal clear of any stains. So I forgot about it, for the time being. Tomorrow? Perhaps.
I was indulging in what is called wilful blindness, a reluctance to face up to bad facts or bad news. The concept was coined by Margaret Heffernan, a wise and witty writer on work and management.
Once you’ve got the concept in your head, you see it everywhere. I have two athletic friends: one is a keen rugby player, the other a boxer. Both of them seem to be impervious to all the statistics on the dangers for their sports. Somehow they feel they are invincible.
Another friend visited the other day. He had just received a report from the surveyors on a property he was longing to own.
“Oh, is it bad?” I said. He said, “I haven’t looked, they are always bad. These people, they make it worse than it is just in case they get sued. So I never pay any attention to them.”
Oh well, I thought. It’s his money, not mine.
But that reminded me of the stain in my ceiling. I went to have a look. It was still there. Oh well, give it another week, I decided, and went back to work. Wilful blindness by both of us.
You see it everywhere: governments fail to notice the alarming rise in the balance of payments deficit, or the impending disease.
The number of times I’ve heard people say, “oh it will pass, don’t worry,” when somebody is ill and suffering pain. I do it myself. Oh, it’s just a cold I say, I’ll take a pill, ignoring the alarming pains in my stomach. Most doctors are well aware of wilful blindness, particularly amongst men.
I am sure we can all think of instances in our own lives, like my ceiling stain, where we don’t want to face up to reality. And so we shut our eyes and hope it will go away.
Wilful blindness is prevalent throughout society but particularly in business and in management circles.
If you notice it in your own life, shut it down. It can be very dangerous.
I never did face up to my neighbour about the leak and I haven’t looked at it for weeks, but I suspect it’s still there. Sometimes the blindness is deliberate, sometimes it’s my subconscious acting on my behalf, keeping me from getting worried. Either way, it is a dangerous lapse of concentration.
And, to be honest, cowardice… in my case, always.