The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

Signs of Stuckness

Learning to see when we are caught in the wrong conversations.

In the Ostrich Effect the problems that capture attention are acceptable; they can be admitted to, talked about and invested in. But they cannot be fully solved, not really. Consider a project team asked to develop a strategy for introducing a new product. The hidden issue percolating beneath the surface of the team: the unresolved nature of the relationship between co-leaders pitted against one another by their own leaders. The co-leaders have avoided naming the underlying issue, too anxious about what it might mean for their work and their careers. The emotions triggered by the underlying issue—frustration and anger, guilt, fear—become disconnected from their true source. But the emotions do not disappear, as much as we might wish them away. Triggered emotions seek—they demand—expression. So as the project team tries to solve what ought to be relatively straightforward strategic questions, the emotions from the avoided issue become bootlegged into its work. The co-leaders act out in relation to one another, without being fully aware of doing so. As a result, their work and that of the project team itself becomes hijacked by the bootlegged emotions. The team gets stuck, its members and leaders unaware of how and why it occurred. 

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People remain stuck in the Ostrich Effect because they disregard a basic truth: If we are having the same conversations over and over, we are having the wrong conversations. The project team keeps talking about the same issue—the strategy for implementation. That conversation goes nowhere, as the co-leaders continue to vie for whose ideas ought to take prominence. The team wastes months of effort. Why? Because they are having the wrong conversation, even as its members are convinced that is the conversation that they are supposed to have. So what is the right conversation? It is the quite real discussion between the team co-leaders about how they have each been set up by their own leaders, whose interests are in hijacking the team for their own purposes rather than for the company as a whole. But the co-leaders are unable or unwilling—which boils down to the same thing—to have that conversation. So they keep engaging the wrong conversation, which they are unable to stop having over and over. 

The Ostrich Effect thrives on the wrong conversation. We only escape its grasp by figuring this out and having the right conversations. This is, of course, no simple matter. And that process only begins when people realize that they are, indeed, stuck. So how do we know when people are stuck?  There are certain signs that we need to look for. The signs are actually quite clear.  But we often miss them, thinking that they mean something else. The signs include:

  • Issues and problems do not get resolved—or are resolved partially
  • Working relationships—communication, trust, respect—are diminished
  • People experience troubling emotions—anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness—that do not go away even when the ostensible problems and issues are resolved
  • People experience recurring impulses toward fight or flight
  • Situations seem too familiar, repetitive, or boring

These are all signs that people are caught in the Ostrich Effect. When people avert their gazes from the real issues that trouble them, those troubling issues retain the power to signal their existence.  Indeed, people are sending signals to themselves; they issue distress calls, in the unconscious wish that someone will hear and rescue them. So the project co-leaders act in ways that frustrate, bore, and anger themselves and team members, who feel hopeless to the point of wanting to disengage from the team. If the team leaders, or any of its members, were able to understand their experiences and impulses as signals—as distress calls issued in the hopes that someone would see that they are caught in the Ostrich Effect—then the situation could truly be altered. But this does not occur very often. Instead, people look at the signs of stuckness as evidence of others’ incompetence, bad intentions or personal limitations. They do not realize that the real problem is that they are all stuck in the wrong conversation, and that there are right conversations to be had. 

Yet there is hope. It is possible for people to hear and respond to distress calls from those stuck in the Ostrich Effect. The bad news here is also the good news. Stuckness does not just suddenly dissolve. The distress calls, unheard, build. They signal the presence of the Ostrich Effect, softly, and if not heeded, they get louder and stronger, demanding attention. In the next several blogs, I will focus on what it means to hear those signals and act upon them, usefully. It is only when that occurs that it becomes possible to stop the wrong conversations and move into the right ones. 

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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