Looking back one year: wilful blindness and the Leveson Inquiry

Looking back one year: wilful blindness and the Leveson Inquiry

By Daniel Kershen, CEDR Foundation project Co-ordinator, and Andy Rogers, Associate Director of Communications

It’s 11 months since the Prime Minister, David Cameron, first announced there would be a public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. Its interesting to reflect upon this once you consider that the Prime Minister was himself summoned to given evidence by the Leveson Inquiry this week. And for CEDR there is the added dimension that our own ‘Inquiry into Inquiries’ project, headed by Lord Woolf and Dr Karl Mackie CBE, should be launched in the middle of this period, to examine what sort of inquiry processes might prove most effective. The research we commissioned of 2,000 Britons, told us that they don’t have ultimate confidence in the process or the involvement of politicians.

Not seeing the problem

Also in the last year, at the 2011 CEDR Winter party, entrepreneur, author and Chief Executive, Margaret Heffernan was invited to tell the assembled dispute resolution professionals, legal representatives, colleagues and clients about her book: Wilful Blindness; the phenomena that underpins the behaviours of board members that chose to be ignorant of a looming crisis, or the manager who turns a blind eye to unresolved conflicts affecting their team; making the choice, consciously or not, to remain ignorant.

As the wheels of the Leveson Inquiry continue to roll forward, the recent All-Party Parliamentary Committee report applied the term Wilful Blindness to the management of the News International empire, stating:

“In failing to investigate properly, and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited wilful blindness, for which the companies’ directors – including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch – should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”

When selective amnesia is displayed by senior management faced with interrogation, the charge of wilful blindness may indicate deeper failings across an organisation.

At the 2006 Confederation of British Industry, CEDR released its Cutting the Cost of Conflict research: looking at behaviours in conflict.  This research found that 35% of managers would rather parachute jump for the first time that deal with a problem in their team, with some even saying they would rather eat “bush tucker” bugs for a week.  A further 69% of respondents would rather send back a bottle of wine in a restaurant than confront a boss’s underperformance.

When looking at wilful blindness, CEDR’s research gives some basis for understanding that people can often prefer seeing no evil and hearing no evil to confronting a problem, even if it comes to the point where the lack of action results in a national scandal.

A culture that addresses issues

More recently CEDR have been working with the International Finance Corporation, examining the processes that govern organisations and looking at managing the difficult conversations that are necessary and yet frequently not happening.  Building in an effective corporate governance structure should highlight any potentially damaging activity and allow issues to be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

To deal with issues such as surreptitious staff activities so as to stop them from happening and preventing them from happening again, is key at board level and encourages an increasingly effective workplace, something that might have dealt with some the issues that have arisen in the Leveson Inquiry over recent months.

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