Margaret Heffernan, Porfessor and Author, discussed why we ignore the obvious at our own peril, why we don’t see the changes we most need to pay attention to.
Ms Heffernan raised the example of Dr Alice Stewart, a British epidemiologist and physician who worked in Oxford during World War II. Dr Stewart wanted to understand the rise in childhood cancer, and in particular, why childhood cancers preferentially afflicted children of affluent families, when other diseases were typically correlated with poverty. After a nationwide postal survey, she found that the families with children who died from childhood cancers were three times more likely to have had mothers who were x-rayed when pregnant. This was such an extraordinary finding that Dr. Stewart rushed into print.
However, it was 25 years before the British Medical Association abandoned the practice of x-raying pregnant women. This was an interesting scenario, as on one hand there was a huge body of data suggesting a course of action, and on the other, it was a long time before any action was taken. She elaborated that orthodoxies attract confirming data and marginalise disconfirming data. Thus one can be blinded to truths and changes that should be implemented within one’s professional or personal life. “Orthodoxies are not just a medical phenomenon – everyone builds mental models in order to make sense of the world, and they are very effective and powerful ways of organizing information until they blind us to things that do not fit in,” Ms. Heffernan noted. Because orthodoxies give priority to evidence that support them and trivialize threatening data, this leads to the shaping of beliefs, which in turn affects how one views the world.
We have all these orthodoxies in our daily life. While they might help us guide our life, at the same time, they prevent us from seeing changing trends. just take Alan Greenspan who said: “I believe in my ideology.” Even all the data didn’t convince to change course. Only when the financial crisis hit, he had to admit that his ideology was flawed. Orthodoxies and theories help us lead our daily lives but blind us to the changes we most need to pay attention to.
Moving into the topic of organizational silence, Ms Heffernan explained that it was a huge issue that happens when people get together and feel that they should not rock the boat. What academic research into organizational silence shows is that people silence their fears and concerns either because they are afraid of retribution from bosses or co-workers (this is the chief cause in the U.S.) or they feel that speaking up would be futile because nothing would change (this is the chief cause in Europe.) Fundamentally what this means is that companies go to great lengths to hire smart people – but then abjectly fail to get the best from them.
This is because very few organizations appreciate the extent of the suppressed knowledge or the very real risk which it represents. Many CEOs and leaders think that silence is indeed golden, that consensus is bliss. It is – sometimes. But more often what it signifies is that there are no respected processes for surfacing concerns and dissent.
To do more creative work, we need to slow down. We need to give people in our credit union time for a life. We need to give ourselves time for a life. Only when we give people the space and time to create, we will disrupt business as usual.