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I heard a story on NPR on my way to work this morning. Some not-for-profit organization was trying to eradicate two common types of sexually transmitted diseases. The biggest obstacle they ran into was that a significant percentage of the population at risk refuses to take the tests to determine if they had the disease, especially for the more serious kind. When asked why, most people replied that they were afraid to learn the potentially bad news that they had the disease. Apparently, some people were willing to put off the bad news even at the cost of early diagnosis and treatment. The team called this behavior the ‘ostrich effect’.

It is hard to overestimate the damage caused by the ‘ostrich effect’ in all types of social and organizational settings. It’s a major contributor to the poor performances of teams, businesses and governments. Both Democrats and Republicans continue to kick the can down the road to avoid facing the real issues in American politics: over consumption, entitlement spending, a broken tax system and lack of equal education opportunities. Our politicians continue to pretend that these systemic problems would go away if only the other party yields power to them. In businesses, management urges employees to be innovative and put customers first but punishes them for any mistakes made and let internal politics trump valuable opportunities. Most managers are well aware of the contradictions that they are creating but do it anyway to protect their self-interests in the status-quo and avoid the risks and pains of creative destruction. Collectively, they perpetuate the ‘ostrich effect’ that will eventually bring down the business. Individual employees fall victims to the ‘ostrich effect’ when they try to self-preserve by covering up and denying any weaknesses during performance evaluations. They never get a chance to take a serious look at themselves and recognize what’s holding back their careers.

There are a lot of talks of leadership these days but very little actions and results to back them up. How to combat and prevent the ‘ostrich effect’ seems a pretty reliable measure for the presence and absence of real leadership.

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