On Not Wanting to Know


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.”


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.



  • 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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