The Ostrich Effect

Exploring the hidden sources of problems at work

From Knowing to Doing

What it means to actually change unproductive work relationships.

Think about the people with whom you find yourself regularly arguing, upset by, bored with, or troubled over—all signs of stuck relationships.  Your relationships with these people have way too much emotion in them, far too often.  The relationship just doesn't feel very healthy or productive.  You spend too much time dealing with the problems that you have with these people.  Sound familiar?

How did you get there?  And what you can you do about it? 

The answers are rooted in the Ostrich Effect.  Start by working backwards from what you know to what you have not yet allowed yourself to know.  Like a physician, begin with what presents itself (symptoms) and work toward what it might mean (disease).  Start with what you believe is the problem.  Let's say that you're upset that a work colleague is always late.  You are often angry when you are with her.  So you tell yourself a story to make sense of the anger.  Your story is that you are responsible and respectful, thoughtful about others, whereas she thinks her time is more valuable or she is just oblivious.  You've now framed your experience to make sense of your anger.

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But knowing about the Ostrich Effect leads you to suspect that not all is how it seems.  You know that your constant anger toward your always-late friend or colleague might flag something else instead.  Here is what you know, in principle:  outsized emotions are markers of buried truths that need to be excavated and understood; people bury truths that make them anxious; they distract themselves from those truths as best they can; and truths that cannot be named always express themselves in some fashion.  Knowing this, you become newly watchful.  You start to look at the moments when your feelings about the other person stretch past where they really should.  The outsized emotions are clues as to where you may have buried something important.

Soon enough your friend is again late.  She is really a problem.  You are immediately angry.  You do not, however, express that anger.  You inspect it.  You wonder what it means.  You question yourself.  Why do I have so much anger here?  Why here, why now, why with my friend?  Where does it come from?  What else might this anger be about?  Just posing such questions loosens the grip of the Ostrich Effect.  You find yourself curious.  You are ready for a different story to emerge, one that takes into account what moves beneath your own surface.

At this point, you might continue to go it alone or you might need some help.  Either way, you need to think symbolically.  What might the troubling issue symbolize for you?  Let's look at the lateness again.  Thinking about it, you realize the lateness symbolizes a real lack of respect for you.  It is as if she is saying that your time—and by extension, you—have less value and importance.  This infuriates you. 

This fury is an important piece of information.  What is that about?  Was there a particular moment in which you had felt particularly dismissed or devalued by the colleague?  Presumably, there was.  The work now becomes figuring out what that striking moment had been, what it made you think and feel, and your resulting behaviors.   Of course, there is also the possibility that you go through the world always feeling devalued by lots of people, as an all too familiar experience.  If so, this is a therapeutic issue, focused on earlier moments in your own history. 

Then it hits you.  There had been a moment.  Your colleague had forgotten to keep a commitment she had made to you.  Later, you called and asked what happened.  She had told you that in her position at the company she was usually working on something really important, and that your job was more "flexible."  The other's comment hurt you greatly but you never said anything.  The thought of saying something made you anxious.  Perhaps you were afraid of losing the relationship, not having that many close colleagues.  Perhaps you did not want a confrontation in which you discover just how much she thinks she is more important or central than you.  Or perhaps you needed her for what she could do for you and did not want to put that in jeopardy.  So you made your way into the Ostrich Effect.  You averted your gaze in that moment, shoved away the hurt and anger, and began to use the other's lateness as the distraction that allows you to express anger without going near what makes you anxious.

And now you're stuck.  But you are getting ready to not be any longer.  Perhaps there is a particularly bad interaction that leaves one or both of you upset, sounding out a distress signal.  You pause, momentarily suspending the certainty that your anger is because she is always late.  You inspect yourself.  You can do this on your own; you can also get the helpful reflections of someone else.  You find that there really is too much emotion in you.  You are not certain from where it all comes. 

Now you face the choice:  Do you pause, speak a moment of truth, name what is right there to be named, and invite the other to join you in making right what is wrong?  Or do you stay where you are, hiding in plain sight? 

This is a choice that only you can make.  Knowing something about the Ostrich Effect—how you get into and out of it—means that you can make this choice consciously rather than unconsciously.  You now know that your beliefs about a troubled relationship create the surface of your understanding.  You now know that beneath that surface there is much that can, and probably does, move.  You now know that examining what is beneath is what allows you to escape the Ostrich Effect.  You can no longer not know any of this.  You can only choose to act based on this awareness. 

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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