The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

The Stories We Tell

Examining our sleights of mind.

The Ostrich Effect is marked by people looking away from the realities of tough situations. Spooked by what those realities might mean for them, they avert their gazes. Without realizing it, they then create what I have described in a previous blog as compelling distractions: they give themselves (and others) something else to fasten upon. It is, so to speak, a sleight of mind. 

The Ostrich Effect thus involves lots of story-telling. When we create compelling distractions, we are creating a story that helps us avoid the anxiety of what we wish to look away from. Those stories give us a context that helps us make sense of what we felt when we rushed to look away. Consider Ellen, a boss who has realized, in overhearing Jim (the new manager that she had just promoted) talk to his team, that she made a mistake in promoting him. Jim is ruthless and utterly selfish. Ellen averts her gaze from her realization. To truly admit to herself that she has made a mistake, in a highly visible way, is to unleash her own anxieties about herself as a capable senior leader. Still, Ellen is furious, at Jim and at herself. So she tells herself a story: Jim's team is lazy and irresponsible. They need someone tough, to whip them into shape. Jim is the right person to drive them. His ruthlessness is just what is called for.

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Ellen needs to justify that new story. So she looks for confirmation. She notices that some of the team members leave right at 5 p.m. rather than stay and put in the extra time to get their work done.  She “remembers” thinking that the previous team leader, nearing the end of his career, had let people coast. She “recalls” that the team is often behind schedule on their deliverables. So when Jim comes into the office and asks her for permission to increase the team budget so he can do a team-building session next month, she denies him. She tells him, angrily, that the team has done nothing to deserve it, that she needs to see some real changes there, and that he needs to do a better job starting now. Jim recoils from her anger, confused. But Ellen is simply following the script of the story that she has created. That story tells her why she is so angry and upset. It justifies her expressing those emotions. 

Ellen’s story is her framing device. Like the encasings of pictures, frames tell us what to look at (the pictures) and what to ignore (the walls). The frames we use in daily life are the stories that we tell ourselves, telling us what is important to look at and why. In the Ostrich Effect, though, “framing” is doubly meant: we frame others for crimes that they did not commit. Look again at what Ellen did.

In averting her gaze earlier, Ellen chose not to follow the real story that would explain what she was thinking and feeling. She now has to develop a different one to relieve the pressure of her anger. So she fastens onto a story about Jim and his team. Ellen uses the evidence to build a case in her mind, and convicts those that she framed. And she delivers the punishment, turning upon Jim her anger, resentment, and frustration. Jim has little idea of his true crime even as he is punished for another. And that is precisely the problem. Jim can do his best to change the behaviors for which Ellen convicts him. But since Ellen is, in truth, disturbed by something she is unwilling to discuss, nothing Jim might do will fix the situation. The false story has taken over. 

It is in maintaining the false story that the Ostrich Effect takes hold. Often, when people lie, they have to invent more and more lies in order to maintain the original deception. In the Ostrich Effect, it gets even more complicated. As long as we are unable or unwilling to speak the truth of our experiences, we need to create situations that let us keep expressing the emotions that insist upon expression. This is far more complicated than simply covering our tracks with a few more lies. We have to keep convicting others of crimes that they did not commit, in order to let ourselves off the hook and keep avoiding what we are anxious about. 

So Ellen protects herself, and she protects Jim. She sacrifices his team, projecting her anger and resentment onto its members. They, of course, have no way to understand their harsh treatment by their bosses, and no way to defend themselves against Ellen’s trumped-up charges. The team struggles under the weight of heavy, outsized expectations that have little to do with their tasks and capabilities. They are caught, unawares, in the surreal world 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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