The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

The Averted Gaze

The Roots of Our Difficulties with Others at Work

The Ostrich Effect is this:  people look away from that which makes them anxious, setting in motion a sequence of events that get them stuck with difficult work situations, problems, relationships and people.  This post focuses on the act of looking away. 

A demanding client is pressing Andy, a partner in an accounting firm, about a tax loophole.  Andy is pretty sure that the loophole had been closed with the last tax law revision.  But he isn't positive.  Mike, who started the firm with Andy, is an expert in this area.  Andy calls and leaves messages for two days, with no answer.  Andy emails him, still no answer.  Andy pushes the client off for yet another day.  The client is furious.  Andy is too. 

A few days later Andy is standing in the hallway.  Mike walks up, smiling, hand outstretched.  Andy looks at the hand, thinking, finally gives it a brief shake. 

"How did it go with the client?" Mike asks.  

Andy looks at him, face expressionless.  After an uncomfortable moment, he finally speaks.  "Where have you been?"

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Mike grins.  "Hiking.  With Tim [his fiance's brother].  Sorry I couldn't respond to your messages.  We were way out.  No reception in the mountains."  Mike pantomimes a cell phone next to his ear.  "It was really remote out there.  You should definitely check it out.

This is a signal moment, building off of many such moments in the last year.  In that moment Andy lets himself realize what he had known but not wanted to admit to himself:  he and Mike are no longer the kind of partners that they had wanted to be in the firm they started together.  In that moment Andy needs to figure out how to respond.  His choice: to act directly and immediately upon what has been revealed in the moment, or turn away and carry on as if he has not glimpsed a larger truth?  Signal moments pose precisely this question.  Too quickly to perceive, we are whirring calculators of data, perceptions, hopes, fears, perceived costs and benefits.  And then we have our answer.  We speak of the larger import of the signal moment.  Or we do not.  

It is when we do not speak of what a moment reveals to us that we set in motion the Ostrich Effect.  We avert our gaze.  Andy tells Mike not to worry, that he dealt with the client well enough.  He glances at his watch, tells his partner he has to run to a meeting, and heads back into his office.  Andy lets the moment pass without comment.  In so doing, he fell into the Ostrich Effect.  

There are two truths at the core of our averting our gazes in such moments.

The first truth:  We avert our gazes when we get something crucial out of how things are. 

Avoidance is, for the most part, irrational.  Troubling events and situations do not usually just go away or resolve on their own.  They usually get worse.  Averting our gazes, then, is not usually in what we think of as our best interests.  Yet our avoidance usually makes sense.  The sense that avoidance usually makes is this:  we choose to live with dysfunction because there is something that we do not wish to lose.  We cherish dysfunction for what it does for us.  So what does dysfunction do for us?  Andy likes the stability and status of being a partner in the firm.  He likes being the free spirit at the firm, bringing in new ideas and possibilities, depending on Mike to supervise the junior partners.  He does not want to confront Mike about their changing relationship because he does not want to admit his sadness about losing his best friend and partner.  Nor does he want to look at his own failures to create a committed romantic relationship of his own.  Averting his gaze lets Andy avoid losing what he does not want to lose, even as it keeps him pained.

The second truth:  Anxiety is at the root of our averted gazes

If we look closely at the moments in which people glimpse some larger truth, we would see their anxiety of what it would mean for them to act on what they see and know.  Andy sees, in that moment in the hallway, that he is not living the life that he truly desires in the partnership as it is constructed.  The knowledge frightens him.  This is the dream that he had held onto all those years, getting through graduate school and seeing what life was like in those other big firms.  He had created a firm with one of his closest friends.  It made him anxious to think he would have to give that up.  In that moment, Andy does not simply have anxiety, it has him; he has been gripped by it.  He cannot face it, so he averts his gaze.

When we look away in such moments, we pretend that we do not see what we saw or realize what we realized.  This is Andy.  It is any of us, beginning to get caught in the Ostrich Effect.

Bill Kahn, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist at Boston University's School of Management who researches the sources of stubborn problems in work relationships, groups and organizations.

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