Why turning a “blind eye” is hazardous to the health of your team
In 1801, Admiral Horatio Nelson was leading several warships in a desperate fight against the Danish in the Battle of Copenhagen. His ships were part of a larger fleet commanded by another Admiral. Back in those days, commanders communicated with their fleet by displaying signal flags.
After hours of combat, and suffering great damage, the cautious British commander feared the loss of his fleet, so he hoisted a series of signal flags directing Nelson to break off his attack.
The more aggressive Nelson saw and understood the signal. But he also believed that if he persisted a little longer, he could win the battle.
Earlier in his career, Nelson had been blinded in one eye. On this day, he used that disability to his advantage. He lifted a telescope to his blind eye and famously said,
His knowing disregard of the order was ultimately successful and resulted in a British victory.
His actions are the reason we have the phrase “to turn a blind eye.” This saying has come to mean ignoring something you would rather not see because then you would have to do something about it.
Things worked out for Nelson. But for us as leaders, following his example is a bad idea. Here’s why.
Standards – for the Benefit of All
Good organizations have standards: expectations for how people will do things, and how they will treat each other. Standards exist for the good of the organization and the benefit of the people in it. Good leaders are the standard bearers.
Early in my career, my leaders drilled into me the idea that a leader should never walk past a mistake.
It took a little while to grasp what they meant and why it was so important. A “mistake” in this context is someone or something that does not comply with the standard. Walking past a mistake is the same as turning a blind eye.
Turning a Blind Eye
So what happens if you turn a blind eye? Two things, and neither one is good.
First, you have just shown by your personal actions that you don’t really believe in the standard. If you did, then you would have done something about it.
And if you as the leader are not willing to make sure it’s right, why should the rest of the team do so?
Instead, you have just established a new, lower standard. Not the one written down somewhere, but the one you are sanctioning by your actions (actually, by your inaction).
That’s not good. But there is something more insidious happening too: your integrity just took a hit.
When you allow some space to develop between what you say and what you do, that space is filled by distrust.
Consider this: what will happen the next time you announce something is going to be “the standard?” People may nod their heads and agree. They heard what you said. But the question now is, do they believe you? The value of your word is in doubt; trust is on the line.
Why Should You Act?
OK, so letting it slide is not a good idea. On top of that, according to retired General and Secretary of State Colin Powell, there are five good reasons for you to step up and do something about it.
• It reinforces the standard. You are showing that it really is important.
• It is consistent with that you said you would do. That builds your credibility.
• It shows that you care about the organization and its people that the standard is meant to support.
• Fixing small infractions now will prevent them from growing into larger problems later.
• You are setting a leadership example for the other leaders on your team to emulate; you are showing them the way.
Making the Correction
If you want to remain effective as a leader and worthy of respect, you need to make the correction immediately. Sometimes that can require a little courage. It might take you outside your comfort zone, but the penalty for not acting it too high to ignore.
The correction itself doesn’t need to be a big show or a made-for-TV drama. A lot of the time all it takes is a little reminder:
“Hey, shouldn’t we be wearing our hard hats? Let’s get them on.”
“Hey guys, we don’t do that here.”
“That joke is not appropriate. It’s not how we treat people. Let’s talk about something else.”
Make the statement, be clear about it, correct the behavior, and move on.
If the behavior persists, then you may need to take stronger action – It could require that you meet off-line with them and provide some constructive feedback, hear what they have to say, and take it from there.
Passing the Test
Sometimes, especially if you are new as the leader, your teammates may test you, whether they are conscious of it or not. They want to see what you will do, how you will respond. Did you mean it when you said this was important, or were those just words?
They will let a standard slip, maybe make an excuse. It’s raining right now. We’re tired. No one will know…
You will pass the test if you make the correction and uphold the standard.
Expect that you will be tested often, especially in the early days. After a while, the testing will slacken when they see that you mean what you say.
But if you don’t act, the testing will continue because your team doesn’t know what the “new standard” is. They will keep probing, and life will only get more difficult.
As a leader, you are the standard bearer for your organization. If something is important enough to make it a standard, then you have to be ready to enforce it. Every time.
When your teammates see that your actions match your words consistently, trust grows, and your ability to influence them increases.
If you walk past a mistake, you miss an opportunity to be a better leader in a better organization.
If you turn a blind eye, expect that your teammates may someday turn a blind eye towards you.
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