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Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

Updated: 2 days ago

Book review from the H3 book Group



Margaret Heffernan is a prolific writer and speaker in the world of business. This book was originally written in 2011 with further updates in 2012 and 2019. This is important as the later editions include some of the latest developments in the world of business and psychology that she was able to weave into her book and don’t date the book too much.


At its heart, Wilful Blindness is about the unconscious biases that guide all of us, every day in all aspects of our lives. It looks at when those biases and heuristics that we have developed throughout our lives do not serve us very well and how they can infiltrate an organisation culture so that as individuals we become bystanders and part of the problem.


As she weaves her narrative, she explores lots of case stories related to relationships and business, citing in-depth case analysis of The Texas refinery catastrophe at BP and the downfall of Enron. She then highlights the psychology behind why we all become wilfully blind, like the need to belong or the fear of speaking up.


As we thought about the book and what it tries to help us with, we identified the following 5 points:


1. Emotions and objectivity both matter. Heffernan does a great job of providing examples where individuals have either been too subject to their feelings, eg the woman who turned a blind eye to her husband’s abuse of her children, or too objective with no emotion or empathy for the issue, eg the Business Leader in BP.


Our take-away is that while Heffernan has not labelled this explicitly in her book, the need for individual development within individuals, where one can learn to understand the dance between leaning in and leaning out to emotional experience and hard objectives, is something that leaders need to develop as part of their development pathway.


2. Speak up and be open. The cases in the book highlight that there is a need within all of the individuals to learn to both speak up and also be open to differing views and points. The ability to differentiate between conflict and debate is an important differentiation for individuals. Debate is when we debate ideas and conflict is when it turns personal. Learning to debate the ideas and to minimise conflict is an important development goal for many of us.


In organisations, there is a power bias and that ability ‘to speak truth to power’ is so vital as is the ability for leaders to be able to hear and listen to the feedback. The book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen: Thanks for the feedback is a great introduction into how we all need to learn how to take onboard feedback. To have a more open culture requires both an ability to speak up and also to be heard.


3. Wilful Blindness in all layers. The book highlights how wilful blindness happens at an individual, team and organisational level. It is great at providing some of the systemic changes that might be needed at a corporate level, eg how organisations are audited to help create more robust accountability and governance. Although not explicitly labelled, it also highlights the importance of Psychological Safety within teams. Psychological safety is about the environment that a team leader can create within a team to enable individuals to feel safe to speak up and be heard. It leads to a greater bond within the team, higher productivity and more creativity. You can understand why Google would have it as one of their team competencies.


4. Psychological safety. To create psychological safety requires a leader who is aware of their own defences, their triggers, their responses and knowing how and when to manage them. It is not about being perfect but about being good enough and enabling that within the teams they serve. It’s not easy and it requires a real conscious effort from all members. To hear more about psychological safety, Amy Edmundson has conducted the most recent research and you can listen to her on TED Talks: https://www.ted.com/speakers/amy_edmondson


5. Embracing polarities. And finally at the core is the individual. The book speaks to how if we want to get better at making decisions we need to embrace the concept of Both-And. The ability to speak up and voice our opinions so that they can be heard AND also the ability to know when to back down and to listen. The ability to show care and empathy for others AND the ability to step back and be more objective and question what might be going on. These may sound very easy but when you read the cases in the book it will hopefully highlight how that delicate balancing act we are performing as we move between these polarities can easily become slightly skewed so that we end up wilfully blind.


This is a great book, that is written in a more narrative than business book style. If you want to learn more about risk management, decision making and learning to become a better human then this is a great book to add to read.


This write up is based on the H3 discussion group. A wide group of colleagues meet every 6 weeks to discuss a business book and review what they have learnt and how it can be applied. If you would like to know more about this, please contact shauna@hcubed.co.uk.


Shauna McVeigh is a BPS Chartered Business Psychologist, an APECs accredited Master Coach and a Director at H3. H3 is a purpose-led organisation where we want to help individuals and ourselves to learn and to grow, as we believe that will lead to better lives for all.



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