Leadership Lesson: What are we pretending not to know? Hiding the problem

Published in the Phoenix Business Journal on July 5, 2019

Hide. Hide the problem. We’ll deal with it someday. It is too much to face right now. Thus the unadmitted nagging truth that something is wrong. A product weakness, an encroaching competitor, an employee that isn’t performing a critical task. But we’ll ignore it and hope that the issue goes away. And create an even bigger problem.

Kodak pretended not to know about the relentless encroachment of digital photography. Volkswagen pretended not to know that it had a diesel engine performance deficiency. NASA pretended not to know about the flawed O-rings that downed the Challenger space flight in 1986. All brutally costly. Lives, reputations, money.

“The facts remain long after they have been ignored.” – Anonymous

What’s the motive, anyway?

Why would a leader (or anyone else) ignore warning signs of an existing or pending serious problem? Here is a short list of reasons:

Distancing – not wanting to be identified with the problem; or worse, be seen as the cause of it. Keeping “one’s skirt clean.”

Laziness – believing that it is not worth the effort to deal with the issue; it is better to use resources on non-problems.

Pollyannaism – “everything is fine, nothing is wrong;” turn our heads the other way and pretend the problem does not exist.

Wishful thinking – the concern will resolve itself and go away; someone else will see the issue and take care of it.

Minimization – this concern is really small and not worth worrying about; it cannot do much damage and we have more important things to do.

Cost – we have limited financial resources and should not waste them on fixing a problem instead of spending on more important tasks.

Time – it will take too long to fix the issue and that will delay the entire project too much. Management will reward us for staying on track.

The above reasons, and many more, are meant to justify our “pretending not to know” – but in our intuitive hearts and souls we know that something is very wrong and should be corrected. Fast.​

And what do real leaders do?

Facts. Get facts, face facts, deal with facts, take action. This is a time to take time for some risk analysis to determine the worst that could happen, and the likelihood of it happening. Determine all costs, including money, time, reputations, and lost business.

The brave hide nothing, get everything out in the open, energize teams, ask for help, and lay out plans to resolve the challenge. And then implement the plan. Forcefully.

Communicate problems and progress to eliminate surprises for everyone concerned. Admit the problem at the beginning – and announce the solution at the end.

Will the real costs please stand up?

At the beginning of this writing, three examples were given of problems that were effectively “swept under the rug.” Here are the known costs:

Kodak – bankruptcy, broken up, assets and patents sold off.

Volkswagen – $20 billion in fines and fees, stock price down 20%, reputation mangled.

NASA – seven astronauts lost, billions of dollars wasted, program delayed three years.

“Pretending Not to Know” is a deadly game that only the foolish play.

The bottom lines

Convenient, maybe – uncomfortable, always. Failing to address problems can be brutally costly. Real leaders, take the high watch and address real and potential problems face-on. Fast. In the long run, save time, costs, reputations, businesses. And sometimes lives.

Click here to read this article on the Phoenix Business Journal site.