The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

The Right Conversations

If the conversation is going nowhere, you're in the wrong conversation.

The Ostrich Effect is held in place by our avoiding or talking around issues and emotions; its grip is loosened by our talking directly about such matters. There is some irony here. We try to remain in control by suppressing and ignoring emotions. When we do so, we are at the mercy of the emotions to which we cannot admit; they sneak into situations and thrash us about in ways of which we are often unaware. It is only when we are able to admit that emotions influence us that we can exert some control over them. When we are stuck, then, we need to speak directly of the emotions that shape our ineffective relationships. To do this we have to engage others in certain ways.

In the movies, such engagements have a certain look. The main character, after various dramatic or comedic maneuvers, finds the courage to confront someone else. It might be a lover, boss, friend, enemy, family member. The protagonist rushes headlong. The words pour out. They are heartfelt.  There is emotional nakedness. Some long-buried truth is spoken. It is like a key that unlocks a rusty lock; the gate swings open, a barrier falls away and leaves people clinging to one another, in love or forgiveness or redemption.

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This is not what the loosening of the Ostrich Effect usually looks like in real life. Most of us do not rush forth, disrobing emotionally, ready to reveal all. We are wary, self-protective. We do not wish rejection or hurt. We want to stay safe. So we move slowly. Like testing the strength of a newly frozen lake, we put a foot forward while keeping our weight safely ashore. If the ice can handle what we have given it, we edge outward. We keep moving, slowly, unless we get spooked by something—a crack in the ice that we think we hear, a slight yielding beneath us. If it seems okay, that we're not going to crash through the ice, we keep going, to the point that we forget that we are on anything but solid ground.

I am called in to work with a local unit of a bank, whose managers are struggling to get to the bottom of recent customer service problems. The work is difficult, not because of the customer service problems, but because the relationship between the two senior managers in the office is troubled.  After spending time with them, I point out that there seems to be a lot of emotion bound up in solving the customer service issues, making it difficult to find a workable solution. I ask to meet with the two senior managers so they can help me clear up some confusion about the planning process. Over time, we discover that the root of their own troubled relationship is the difficulty that they have in asking for and receiving help from one another. There had been moments early in their working relationship in which each had signaled a need for help; those signals had not been picked up on, which led each to feel abandoned by and frustrated with the other. This had never been discussed.  But the emotions bound up in those initial moments had not gone away. Instead, here they were, surfacing amidst the issue of customers signaling for and not receiving help from the bank staff members. 

The two managers, with some help, get to the bottom of this chain. In so doing, they work their way through a fragile truce into something more durable. The Ostrich Effect is marked by distrust difficult to shake off. The two managers sit at the conference table, ready at the slightest suspicious movement to fight or flee. They unconsciously sift through lots of information to figure out whether it is safe to continue. They exchange signs through tone, shifts in posture, and eye movements that point to whether the other means good or harm. The dance of the conversation—how they listen or parry, use silence to absorb or ignore, build on or tear apart one another's comments—helps them figure out if they are moving with or against each other. If the signs are good and they each feel safe enough, they will dig deeper under the surface. Otherwise they will retreat to where they are stuck. They do not retreat.

The right conversations occur when we move past the surface that has preoccupied us—such as the difficulties with customer service—and into the layers below. The right conversations begin with someone naming what is just under the surface—emotions spilling over, tension, struggles in relationships. What keep the conversations open is people remaining curious. To be curious is to be inquisitive: to search to know, to discover, to find out what is really going on and how things work. It is to admit to not knowing. It is the opposite of the pathological certainty endemic to the Ostrich Effect—the unwavering certainty that people have about one another. Such certainty is driven by the desire to not know. Overly certain people do not wish to look beneath the surface of the explanations to which they cling. They do not wish to learn what they do not already believe. Loosening the grip of the Ostrich Effect requires us to learn that we do not know what we think we know. We need to make the familiar unfamiliar. It is only then that we move into the right conversations, the ones that we ought to have been having all along.

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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