The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

Moments of Truth

Pausing to Name the Truth is What Sets Us Free

The Ostrich Effect—the destructive cycles of relationships and work which occur when we avoid our true responses to situations—thrives when we follow our impulses without hesitation; it loses its grip when we stop and reflect.  Reflection inserts a crucial pause between impulse and action.  In the Ostrich Effect we are in full flight.  When we temporarily suspend that flight and gather ourselves, we begin to release ourselves and others from the Ostrich Effect.  The simple act of pausing to think about what is happening inside and around us can be profound.

Yet reflection without action does little.  The action that matters is to pause what we do.  We need to call timeouts.  We need part of our brains to act the referee, able to signal the "T" that temporarily halts the game and creates the chance for all involved to sort out the action. 

Jim, the Vice President of the accounting department at a pharmaceutical company, has been having trouble with Sophia, a Vice President of one of the business units that he supports.  After a particularly contentious meeting, in which Sophia showed open disdain for his suggestions in a task force meeting, Jim decided to call a timeout.  He went to her office, closed the door, and asked for a few minutes of her time.  Sophia nodded.  Jim says that it seems that they aren’t getting along as well as they might.

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With that simple, clear statement—just a sentence that describes what is plainly in front of them—Jim calls a timeout.  He halts the destructive sequence of the Ostrich Effect that has gripped their relationship.  Such timeouts have to be called with subtlety.  Tone is of utmost importance.  Jim speaks ruminatively, as if talking to himself.   His tone communicates beneath, and far more quickly than, his words.  The tone offers the possibility of reconciliation and hope, of being with rather than against.  Jim relaxes his shoulders and looks evenly at Sophia.  They have arrived, quite literally, at a moment of truth.

When people call timeouts they have not figured out all that needs to be figured out.  They just know that what is happening is somehow not right.  They understand that some truth must be gotten at and they cannot do so by themselves.  How do they begin?  By naming that which is right in front of them:  the too-much emotion in a given situation. 

"We haven't worked together very well lately," Jim tells Sophia.  "There has just been too much frustration and resentment, every conversation.  Not just about the task force, although that's been pretty bad.  More generally, too."

Sophia looks up.  Silent, expectant.  Jim continues.  "It’s getting in the way.  This isn't what we want.  It's tense, not fun.  I want to figure this out.  But I can't do it without you.  Would you help me? " 

Sophia nods, this time looking straight at Jim.  She makes no move to speak.  They are at a delicate moment.  Jim asks her if she has noticed it too. 

"Sure," Sophia says, "I've seen it.  It's not much fun around here.  I feel like I'm on my own, pushing us to do what we have to do here, to grow up and be responsible.  And the others don't get it."

"So you have noticed it too," Jim says.  "Good.  Then we’re starting from the same point here.  We both see that something has happened to how we’re working together.  And I’d like to make it right."

Slowly, Sophia assents.  "I do as well," she says. 

What Jim has done here in this moment is both simple and profound:  he surfaces what is just below.  "Surface" is doubly meant here.  Jim raises up what hides just beneath, like miners who have dug out precious metals.  And too, he is coming up for air, like a diver gasping for oxygen.  He brings both issues and himself to the surface.  He does this by taking a moment to say something true, about emotions spilling out and taking over. 

These moments of truth are like hands extended to others.  They are invitations.  Jim does not have it all figured out.  He does not develop a thesis.  He does not offer historical analyses.  All he does is point out what he has glimpsed.  He has sensed as much as seen an opening, a doorway that might be a way out of the scenes in which he finds himself stuck, and he wants Sophia to go through it with him.  So he issues an invitation. 

Unfortunately, the invitations that we issue are not always accepted, regardless of how genuine we are.  Trust may be irreparably damaged.  Others may feel too vulnerable; they do not feel safe enough to surface what is below.  Sophia might be too ashamed of how hurt she has been, ignored by Jim and others over the years, as she made her way up through the company.  Her anger might ride too high.  She might not wish to let go of what she gets, psychologically, from the current state of affairs.  She may feel too uncomfortable with the journey that she would have to take. 

We face certain choices when others do not accept our invitations.  We can turn away from them, work around them, try to isolate or weaken them—and remain stuck amidst the spirals of the Ostrich Effect.  Or we can keep trying.  We can act in ways that show others that we are genuine, that we really want to have healthier interactions.  We can make it safe for them to say what they think and feel without fearing our judgment or punishment.  We can take unconditional steps to repair damaged relationships.  And we can hope that others will at some point choose to join us.  If and when they do, we have the chance to stop having the wrong conversations and start having 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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