The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

Counterfeit Problems

The Problems We Create to Hide From the Problems We Fear

The Ostrich Effect occurs when we look away from that which disturbs us and fasten onto something else that is less likely to trigger our anxiety.  This happens at work a great deal, far more than we realize.  We have a moment that triggers us—our anger, guilt, competitiveness, resentment, sadness.  We do not feel safe enough to openly acknowledge this, to ourselves, much less to others.  We dread what might happen if we actually did speak our experiences to others.  So we turn away, avert our gaze.  As I wrote in an earlier post, however, there is a problem: that which has been triggered in us demands expression.  We accede to the demand by creating compelling distractions—other situations that enable us to more safely express the emotions imported from the originally disturbing moments.

In this post I describe how such compelling distractions take on lives of their own.  They become the ostensible problems to solve.  They become counterfeit problems.  Counterfeits are imitations passed off as genuine.  Counterfeit money and works of art are forgeries; they are imposters, posing as real things, intended to distract and compel the eye.  In the Ostrich Effect people fall for the substitution of the pretend for the real.

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Consider Andy, a partner in an accounting firm.  He has been greatly upset by what has happened in his relationship with Mike, with whom he started the firm.  Mike is recently engaged, busy with clients, and helping to manage the firm.  He has less time for Andy.  There had been a moment several weeks back when Andy had reached out, repeatedly, to Mike for help with a client.  Mike was away with his fiancé’s brother and did not respond.  Andy felt furious, sad, betrayed.  The moment meant little—one partner was just unavailable.  But it crystallized everything for Andy.  Yet he could not, would not, speak of it directly to Mike.  Andy was just too anxious about losing what he had; he was too afraid of facing his own loneliness.  So he creates a counterfeit problem: he forces the partners to create a buyout plan, in case a partner wishes to leave the firm.  Over the course of several months the partners struggle to draft a plan.  It is painful, slow going, with Andy unknowingly punishing the others.  Andy is not intentionally creating a forgery.  He is simply compelled by the issue.  He runs toward the issue in the process of running away from something else. 

The momentum of counterfeit problems can be great, as people get invested in enacting what they come to believe are the real stories.   As they do, more problems spill forth.  Andy and Mike square off over the issue of the buyout plan.  The increasingly contentious discussions raise other issues—partner equity, billable hours, partner splits, and more.  The array of problems get nested like painted Russian dolls; unless one knows the secret of what they are, the smaller dolls lay hidden within, obscured by the bright colors that attract the eye.  Hidden deep within, compressed tightly and away from view, was what happened between Andy and Mike.  The problems that get worked on are not those that most need to be solved.

The real problems remain hidden because of how people caught in the Ostrich Effect think and act once they have signed on to a compelling distraction.  Thinking narrows.  It is as if we are looking at fireworks lighting up the sky: we are compelled by them, following their arcs, captured by their noise and light.  We neither look for nor see what else occurs around us.  Similarly, when we are focused on compelling distractions we do not see that which they distract us from.  We sign off on the counterfeit problem—differences about money, difficulties about buyout contracts—and block out the unwelcome thoughts that had occurred to us during earlier, painful moments.  Like horses driving toward the finish line, we wear blinders that sharply narrow the information that we process.

We are helped immensely in this cognitive narrowing by the simplicity of our stories.  Andy tells himself that he is the serious professional, needing to keep a firm hand on the other partners, particularly Mike, whose priorities have shifted dangerously.  Such stories have a compelling narrative arc:  the protagonist, the hero of the story, is under assault by an antagonist that must be redeemed or overcome.  Larger contexts, history, relational dynamics and other layers of meaning are stripped away, leaving certain clarity about how we should think and act.  Such clarity remains undisturbed by contradictory information.  Andy looks for and gathers further evidence by which to convict Mike.  He finds what he wishes to find:  further examples of Mike's irresponsibility to the firm.  We cannot help but see that for which we look.

As thinking narrows, so too does the range of possible action.  We are all susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies.  Based on what we believe to be true, we make predictions of the future—and we then unknowingly act to make those predictions come true.   Andy believes that the other partners are irresponsible when it comes to planning for the firm's future.  He then takes over the planning, disempowering the other partners, who do little work on the buyout planning.  Andy feels affirmed in his belief that Mike and the other partners do not want to put in hard work on the tough issues. 

Andy is exactly right in his predictions of what would occur.  And he is exactly wrong.  He is wrong about the motivations and characters of those that they have unfairly framed.  He helped create the very realities that he says he fears—and, it must be said, for which he unconsciously wishes, for the compelling distraction and counterfeit problem that gets maintained in his version of 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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