Facing Up to Organisational Blind Spots

UmbrellaIn my last blog I wrote about the challenges of identity.  In particular, the ways in which identity encourages us to focus on particular facets of our experience at the expense of others.  This is as true of organisations as it is of individuals.

Organisations develop blind spots. Those blind spots render companies susceptible to waking with a jolt to discover black holes in their budget or scandals that damage not only reputation and morale, but people.

Sadly, the same beliefs and biases that contribute to blind spots can limit the ability of leadership teams and individuals to respond to pressing evidence of problems even when the signs are overwhelming.   

A Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was recently launched in Australia.  It is expected to hear the testimony of 5000 witnesses, most of whom will provide accounts of abuse whilst in the care of churches, schools, government bodies, sporting associations and welfare institutions.  

In launching the Royal Commission, Prime Minister Julia Gillard acknowledged it will “require the whole country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face.”

The Royal Commission will shed light on the ways organisations have dealt with or failed to deal with evidence of abuse.  In many cases institutional unwillingness to confront these uncomfortable truths has resulted in further trauma to victims, resulting in despair and at times suicide.  

Given the weight of evidence available, one wonders why a Royal Commission was required for victims' claims to be taken seriously and for systemic reform to ensue.  The reasons are no doubt multi-faceted.   Hopefully this enquiry will help us further understand what enables or prevents us, as individuals and as organisations, from recognising and addressing corruption or abuse in our ranks.

Many organisations experience a crisis when they're confronted with evidence that contradicts the way they typically think of themselves. Allegations of abuse or corruption threaten more than institutional pride, profile and reputation.  They cut to the core of what an organisation and its people believe to be true about themselves and often what they stand for.  

Recognising the potential for and presence of abuse can be a particular challenge for organisations whose identities are based on morality, care and the welfare of others.  It's in stark contrast to the mission of human service organisations and so can challenge their very reason for being. Yet its a mistake to fall for our own press.  Thinking of ourselves simply as 'the good guys' is a recipe for a fall. It sets us up as being beyond human vulnerability and ignores the realities of predatory behaviours and abuse.

Contemplating the potential for abuse, even when it symbolises failing or falling short of their core mission, is essential if institutions are to protect vulnerable clients and staff. It's impossible to develop strategies to mitigate risks to client welfare unless we understand those risks.  This means understanding the environment in which we operate and own organisational pressure points and shortcomings. 

In many ways this seems obvious.  However blindspots are just that, they are blind spots.  Whilst we might not recognise our own blindspots, they are usually recognisable to others. Taking complaints seriously and listening to the concerns of staff, familiies and clients themselves allows organisations to detect problems quickly. 

When we're open to feedback we develop a richer picture of our organisations and of ourselves.  Yet to do this we need to hold our indentities lightly.  We need to recognise our own humanity and fallibility.  Each of us is capable of avoidance and denial.  Becoming curious about these tendencies, individually and collectively makes us more trustworthy and reliable.  

Ask yourself:   What purpose does maintaining a state of ignorance serve? What am I/we endeavouring to protect or preserve?  What consequences do I/we fear?   What is most challenging for me/us? 

The Royal Commission will bring independence and rigour to examining institutional responses to child sexual abuse.  Its multi-disciplinary team of Commissoners are distant from and will no doubt challenge the organisational blindspots that allowed unethical and abusive practices to become institutionalised.

The lessons to be gleaned from the Royal Commission will be far reaching.  Every one of us has something to learn from the tragic stories that will be told over the coming months.  They are painful and salutary lessons on the use and misuse of power and the real costs of deceiving ourselves about the consequences of our actions or inaction.  

I hope, as do many who will testify, that this Royal Commission yields important insights into the ways in which personal and institutional power can be used to defend ourselves or to genuinely realise what we stand for.  We will continue to explore these important issues in future posts.

Reflections:
What do you know about your own blindspots?  
What do you look for and pay attention to when you are speaking with your staff or analysing reports?  What do you dismiss?    
What data is kept off the table?
What are the un-discussables in your own organisation?  What role do you play in interacting with un-discussables?
 

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