On Not Wanting to Know

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I attended a conference lately on open science where one of the speakers discussed how we can now create detailed human genetic profiles. For example, it is possible to give a pregnant woman or a new mom knowledge of all the diseases to which her baby might be susceptible. But, it turns out, there’s a problem. It seems not every mom wants to have that kind of data. The truth, however accurate it might be — and maybe because it can be so accurate and complete — is not universally desired by those holding a new baby in their arms.

This reminded me of how we organizational leaders may not actually want to know everything about the experience of staff or what’s actually going on in our workplaces. Sometimes it seems we prefer managing a certain amount of ongoing drama and dysfunction to actually digging into, understanding and addressing the way things are — this, even though the dramas will continue until we deal with the issues: the performance problem, the demoralized staff, the bad hire, the discrimination complaints, you name it.

There is something in us that doesn’t want to know what those realities are. We’re busy. And we like the exciting, positive stuff. We thrive on what’s immediate and urgent and likely to result in positive recognition from our constituents.

Over the course of my career I have worked many times with staff experiences and truths that those guiding the organization didn’t want to hear. In the old Ptolemaic view the earth was at the center of the universe and clever mathematicians had to create overly complex equations to describe the movements of the sun and planets. This pleased the mathematicians’ bosses. Copernicus, as we all know, had a different view, but he wasn’t necessarily popular with his clients for his “discoveries.”

There’s always an explanation, a rationalization or negative (Ptolemaic) belief:

“She’s one more impatient Millennial who expects to be rewarded just for showing up — that’s the reason she left,” says the leader. But the (Copernican) truth may be closer to her not feeling valued or useful or frequently seeing her ideas discredited and suppressed.

“He’s a defeatist,” says the leader. But the truth may be closer to his offering inconveniently candid assessments of how the company is failing its lauded strategies.

When such negative judgments of people are voiced by those with authority they can become heavy political stones hung around the necks of people who are probably trying their best to do good. Their only crime may be not fitting the biases and styles of those with authority or informal clout, people who already have a view of the way it should be. Somehow, those bringing reality to the door are determined to be less credible rather than more so. Ah, yes, they are messengers and it can always be claimed that a messenger somehow didn’t bring the message in exactly the right way. In turn, this creates an industry of would-be coaches and consultants who have special formulas for delivering uncomfortable news. However, I’d argue that the formulas are never going to be quite sufficient because of this human thing we all hold within us to some degree — our desire not to know. Thomas Gray, an eighteenth century British poet, knew what he was saying when he coined the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.”

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We could be highly critical of this tendency of ours but it may be that a compassionate, empathic response is more appropriate than righteous opprobrium. Another way to see things is to go back to the mother and her baby. She doesn’t want to know because of the suffering that knowledge might cause her. Her reluctance certainly might be foolish. It might be short-sighted. But we can understand it, too. We can identify with that mother and feel what she must be feeling holding her baby close to her.

People don’t understand why leaders seem to deflect from or dismiss the truth about obviously bad decisions, mistakes they’ve made, conflicts of all kinds, failures and so many other kinds of troubling experiences that get talked about in an organization. But the simple answer is that dealing with those experiences causes pain, and we’d prefer not to feel it.

It is hard for any of us to actively choose pain as a strategy, even when that might be supremely beneficial.

This is not a new thought. In the real world we do bump up against it repeatedly, especially when as leaders we are personally implicated in the bad news. We may certainly enjoy our judgments about this phenomenon and probably a little too much when it is the others who we believe must choose pain, hardly ever when it is us.

Authority and empathy are difficult to balance on any given day. We can forgive ourselves for not wanting to know, and we can also go back the next day and ask again, intentionally increasing our tolerance for knowledge and understanding. It can be our practice to learn how to stand in the fire of what is and not shrink back from our responsibilities for leading, distasteful on some days as that may be. As leaders, we must learn to both hold the child and also know the full truth of a problematic profile.

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4 Comments

  • As a chronic messenger who airs discoveries that are sometimes unpopular, I find resonance in this post.

    I’m often reminded of Upton Sinclair’s observation that

    it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

    I recently moved out of an organization where I was being actively discouraged from delivering unpopular messages.

    My new manager appreciates and encourages my ability and willingness to report my discoveries, but has been coaching me on how to be a more effective messenger, and shared Julian Treasure’s TED Talk on How to speak so people want to listen, in which he lists the seven deadly sins of speaking:

    * Gossip
    * Judging
    * Negativity
    * Complaining
    * Excuses
    * Lying
    * Dogmatism

    and the four ingredients to powerful speaking (HAIL)

    * Honesty: be clear and straight
    * Authenticity: be yourself
    * Integrity: be your word
    * Love: wish them well

    I’m not sure whether this talk is an example of “would-be coaches and consultants who have special formulas for delivering uncomfortable news” – Julian Treasure is a sound designer – but I am taking it to heart, and experimenting with the formula to see if it enables me to more effectively bring my whole self into my work – including my incorrigible knack for finding (and reporting) things that no one else seems to notice – and keep my job.

  • Joe, thank you for this thoughtful comment. Of course, we all can get better delivering our messages, and you’ve brought a great resource. The would be coaches and consultants oversimplify the dilemmas messengers face. And, as you know, I myself co-wrote a book on speaking up called “The Courageous Messenger.” I would write it differently today.

    This post is really devoted to shifting the mindset toward the last of Julian Treasure’s points, toward love as a component of sharing and empathy for the leader who faces some pain in the message being brought. That’s all of us. We are both the messenger and the receiver and we would do well to learn from what its like to be the receiver when we contemplate being the messenger.

    We must get together! I’d love to hear about your new job!

    Best always, Dan

  • Hi Dan,
    Another perfectly timed food for thought piece.

    Just yesterday, I posted in response to this
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/08/some-white-people-dont-want-hear-about-slavery-plantations-built-by-slaves/ – tourists, on vacation, visiting plantations and complaining about the negativity and bias of tour guides talking too much about slavery. Recently, an article in the NY Times identified an emerging behavior in parenting called “distress avoidance,” the apparent shielding of young children from too much bad news. Now clearly every thoughtful parent “selects” when and how to (wisely) share difficult emotional information with young children. This was about something else- a belief at some level that we can somehow escape the effects or outcomes of difficult challenges by not talking about them. It’s a form of magical thinking for adults. And, I fear, in light of the barrage of bad news, warring verbal cultural factions and very serious, existential global issues, this new form of censorship is very much on the rise.

    While your piece focuses on how this works (routinely, I think) in the pressure cooker of most workplaces, these trends, speak to a bigger collective (mostly unconscious) self and social editing with potentially serious implications.

    As always, would love your take on these thoughts.

  • Hi Louise!

    It’s great to see you here with such a powerful comment, extending the whole concept of “not wanting to know” into society at large. I agree there is a trend and am guessing that it is a response to the overload of bad news and the erosion of truth in favor of “switching the channel” to some other preferred version of the world — and ourselves. As a society we seem to be in big-time denial that the house is truly on fire.

    The Washington Post article on plantation tourism is an epic example. It’s clear that if there is any imagining of the Old South for these tourists, it is the lifestyle of the slave owners — which tells us what? Indeed, that slavery as an institution isn’t actually dead. It rests, historically speaking, only inches beneath the surface in its own rotten form of nostalgia.

    To “choose pain” would, for these white people, mean coming to terms with what it is for one person to own another: the pleasure of power in its most devastating and cruel forms, the reduction of people to objects, as tools, and the implicit and explicit violence of extreme capitalist oppression wreaking havoc on the spirit, mind and body of others. They would have to look at themselves without disowning their actual involvement, even, simplistically, if their specific ancestors did not own slaves. They would have to deal with what they don’t understand and probably don’t yet feel in any meaningful way. They would have to immerse themselves in understanding the deepest experience of injustice based on the color of skin, which is an essential human quest and ultimately a spiritual one. Instead, they ask only where the furnishings of the big house have gone. Indeed, in this tour, at least, they still seem very much still to be there.

    This is why I suggest the practice of facing reality. It’s incremental. It requires inquiry into self as an essential social action, one that involves learning to endure and grow from a thousand mistakes in understanding.

    Structurally, I believe the denial of racism is mirrored in almost every other form of denial — which is the denial of impact, of consequences on other human beings.

    It will take a very fierce kind of love to turn any of this hurt around, don’t you think? A love that strengthens us all, that gives us the courage to look and to act.

    Can, then, what is fierce also be compassionate without reinforcing the denial. Can real love and real truth coexist? What does that look like?

    Such a question.

    Warmly, Dan

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