Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 10;   March 10, 2021:

On Repeatable Blunders


When organizations make mistakes, they sometimes acknowledge them and learn how to avoid repeating them. And sometimes they conceal them or even deny they happened. When they conceal mistakes or deny they occurred, repetition is more likely.
NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit on Sptember 23, 1999. It either crashed onto the surface of Mars or escaped Mars gravity and entered a solar orbit. The failure was due to mismatch of measurement units in two software systems. A NASA-built system used metric units and a system built by Lockheed Martin used "English" units. NASA artist's rendering courtesy Wikimedia.

All organizations eventually make mistakes. And if conditions are right, the people of the organization can learn from their mistakes. One of the conditions that makes learning from mistakes possible is that the mistake must not be fatal to the organization. When the organization survives the mistake, its people might have opportunities to avoid repeating the mistake. For this post, then, the mistakes of interest are those that could be repeated.

Some mistakes are so consequential that the word mistake is inadequate. For the cases of interest here — mistakes that aren't lethal for the organization — calamity and catastrophe are too strong, because they include the possibility that the organization itself might be destroyed as a consequence of having made the mistake, which would make those mistakes unrepeatable. The kind of mistake I have in mind has very severe consequences, but not so severe that the organization comes to an end. That kind of mistake lies somewhere between Volkswagen diesel emission testing and Enron accounting practices. In this post, I'll use the word blunder to denote the kind of grave-but-not-fatal errors I have in mind.

If you work in an organization, how the organization handles blunders can affect your livelihood and even your career. You depend on the organization and its people not to repeat repeatable blunders. When blunders happen, you depend on the organization and its people to behave ethically and to deal with the blunders effectively. It is therefore in your interest to know how to recognize factors that cause organizations to tend to repeat repeatable blunders. When you notice these factors, you can take action to address them, or you can decide to move on.

In this post I offer an If you work in an organization,
how the organization handles
blunders can affect your
livelihood — and your career
elementary survey of the options organizations and their people have when blunders happen. Knowing the range of options is helpful when you're assessing your relative safety as a member of an organization. When a blunder occurs, the organization and its people can choose among acknowledgment, concealment, and denial.

If the organization and its people acknowledge the blunder, they can determine how and why it happened. They can then use that information to make adjustments and prevent repetitions. Even so, if they acknowledge the blunder, they risk public exposure, which can cause damage to the organization's image.
Acknowledgment is the one choice that can lead to a benign or even favorable outcome. However, the short-term damage to the organization's image, and the voluntary turnover that can comprise some of the damage, can be costly indeed, to the organization and to its people, especially those involved in the incident.
If the organization and its people conceal the blunder, they can reduce the probability of public exposure, which can limit damage to the organization's image. But concealing the blunder risks hampering the investigation of the blunder's causes. That, in turn, can delay or inhibit developing preventions, which makes the blunder more repeatable. Even if the search for causes and preventions does proceed, concealing the blunder risks biasing the conclusions of the investigation.
Unless the blunder and its consequences are highly localized, and knowledge of it is limited to a small circle of individuals, concealment is likely to be effective only in the short term. Eventually, evidence of the blunder will become public. When that happens, evidence of the concealment might also become public. The concealment might even become more damaging to the organization's image than was the original blunder.
If the organization and its people deny the blunder, even to themselves, they cannot investigate it. There is therefore no opportunity to find causes or preventions. Moreover, denial makes effective concealment more difficult, because concealing the blunder requires enough awareness of it to enable manufacturing alternative explanations for any evidence that might somehow emerge.
We can regard denial as an extreme form of concealment, in which the organization and its people conceal the blunder even from themselves. But because denial limits the ability to conceal the blunder, denial is even more likely to lead to exposure than ordinary concealment. As a strategy, denial is therefore less effective than concealment.

Concealment and denial tactics

Some organizations routinely conceal blunders, including both high-level organizational blunders, and blunders by individuals within the organization. Usually, participants in the concealment effort mean well in the sense that the motivation is protecting the reputation of the organization or the individual.

But high-minded intentions don't relieve the organization of its ethical and legal obligations. When concealment and denial become the dominant response strategies, your own professional integrity can be at risk. Familiarity with the variety of tactics used to conceal or deny blunders is therefore helpful in evaluating the risks associated with remaining in an organization that conceals or denies its blunders. Here's a short catalog of some of these tactics.

  • Transferring witnesses or potential witnesses to different locations, or terminating their employment
  • Offering incentives to people for cooperating with a concealment or denial strategy
  • Extensive use of comprehensive nondisclosure agreements, either upon termination or as a condition of employment or continued employment
  • Destroying evidence by shredding documents or shredding digital data storage equipment
  • Disseminating false or misleading information to the public or to employees
  • Discrediting, sometimes prospectively, individuals who have access to information related to the blunder
  • Scapegoating, especially by termination
  • Threatening uncooperative individuals or media organizations
  • Confessing to something less damaging

If you notice any of these tactics in use, but they haven't yet been directed at you or involved you, you might feel safe. But feelings of safety can be fleeting. Events can become complicated quickly.

Last words

Concealment or denial strategies are appealing because they seem to offer a means of limiting the blunder's damage. These strategies can indeed limit the cost of direct consequences of the blunder. But the costs of concealment or denial strategies can be unexpectedly high when we consider indirect consequences.

As an example of indirect consequences, suppose there is a bully at large in the organization. Suppose this bully has already wrecked two or three careers. Helping the current target of the bully by intervening with disciplinary action against the bully could expose the organization to liability actions brought by past targets. That liability constitutes indirect consequences of intervening in the bully's activities.

To prevent those indirect consequences, organizations sometimes avoid confronting their bullies or intervening on behalf of bullies' targets. But these strategies leave the bully in place, free to harm more careers. Some people leave the organization. Output suffers. Work is delayed. Because the costs of these indirect consequences of intervening to prevent further bullying are difficult to measure with precision, few organizations try to do so. Concealment and denial thus become the strategies of choice.

Concealment and denial strategies are most appealing for people under stress. Detecting them can be difficult, especially for people who want to believe they aren't happening. Watch carefully. Go to top Top  Next issue: Facts, Opinions, Estimates, and Desires  Next Issue

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