DISCUSSION Directors – is your organisation capable of empathy?

by Mark Goyder _______12th February 2024
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How is it possible for an organisation to be ignorant of something it has repeatedly been told?

Margaret Heffernan, author of ‘Wilful Blindness’ describes stresses felt by ex-Amoco middle managers after BP’s acquisition of the Texas City oil refinery. Their warnings about safety risks were ignored. The acquisition had to be a success. To make it a success, costs must be radically cut.

In Collective Intelligence[i], the insightful book by Board Intelligence founders Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg, the authors warn against ‘belief perseverance’ – a resistance to feedback that what will require one to change one’s mind. They cite the example of American fraudster Bernie Madoff.

A rival fund manager warned regulators that:

(Madoff’s) results were statistically impossible. His strategy required buying more options on the exchange than existed at the time…. The regulators… didn’t want to believe they had been wrong about Madoff for all those years. They couldn’t believe he was a crook. 

In the UK a group of postmasters mobilised by Alan Bates took on the Post Office and Fujitsu and won – after two decades. When the Second Sight investigation reported it had found software defects at more than 75 branches  the Post Office stopped the investigation and ordered the destruction of documents. Long after Fujitsu whistleblowers had spoken of flaws in the software the Post Office was still prosecuting postmasters and sending them to prison and it later emerged that people’s bonuses depended on this.

For elected politicians serving as ministers in government, as for non-executive directors, serving on a board, the risks associated with wilful blindness and belief perseverance are particularly severe. A string of ministers were caught up in this failure by accepting without challenge the reassurances of officials.

Civil servants advise and ministers decide. Yet if the civil servants are guilty of belief perseverance the buck stops with the minister. Lord Carrington resigned after the humiliation of the unanticipated invasion of the Falklands in 1983. It is, or should be,  the same with non-executive directors.

 How do NEDs or ministers protect themselves against these risks?.

 Sundberg and Begg argue that they need to license dissent.

In 1963, the US discovered Russian nuclear missile sites on Cuba. This was considered a direct provocation…President Kennedy ….knew the wrong call could trigger nuclear war. Not wanting to repeat his past mistakes on the island, he …institutionalised dissent. He appointed two confidants as ‘intellectual watchdogs’ to find gaps or flaws in arguments, and prevent groupthink setting in.

As I finished reading ‘Collective Intelligence’ I could not get out of my head the reports coming out of Gaza.

As Simon Tisdall put it on 8 February in The Guardian

Spell it out: nearly twenty-eight thousand Palestinian dead. In total, about 100,000 killed, injured or missing. Among the survivors, huge numbers of children, maimed, orphaned, traumatised for life.

Around the world, millions of protesters demand a ceasefire. They appeal to politicians to do more, do anything, to stop the carnage now. In mosques, churches, synagogues, people of all faiths pray the slaughter will end. To Israel’s 1,200 October dead are daily added the lost lives of soldiers sent to avenge them and the hostages cruelly seized by Hamas.

It dawned on me that most elected politicians in the West are locked into an extreme example of belief perseverance whose consequences may reverberate through our world for decades to come. And the same will soon be true of boards unless they rapidly choose to listen to dissent and decide – and say – where they stand.

After the atrocities of 7 October, it was understandable that those in the west would start with a position of uncritical solidarity to the nation of Israel.

It was, perhaps, even understandable that in their shock they could ignore the slow motion injustice, illegality and betrayal of Israel’s 70 year suppression of Palestinians and Palestinian claims. But innocent Palestinians now driven from their ruined homes and cities and grieving their loved ones will not forget and few of the bereaved will forgive.

Wilful blindness becomes lethal when wearing military fatigues. The war has been deadly for journalists – especially Palestinians determined to tell their story. 85 journalists have lost their lives in the conflict. Four of them were Israelis. 78 were Palestinian. The Committee to Protect Journalists has worrying evidence of a pattern of the targeting of journalists by the IDF.

Can we in the West not see ourselves as others outside our alliances now see us?

Is there no ‘intellectual watchdog’ telling President Biden to stop indulging the Israeli government at every turn? What about supplying weapons? The innocent casualties have been multiplied by the dropping of hundreds of 2000 tonne bombs. These bombs are capable of wounding people more than a thousand feet away and they are four times heavier than those dropped by the US on ISIS in Iraq.

There are members of the Israeli cabinet who recently attended a rally at which calls were made for the ‘voluntary repatriation’ of Palestinians from Gaza? This is a government that condones and even encourages attacks and evictions of West Bank communities by Israeli settlers. When will the West start to set conditions for further support and further weapons?

My challenge to boards is that they now risk being wilfully blind to a mounting injustice at least as awful – but much more lasting – than the October 7 attacks,

The Houthi missiles in the Red Sea are an early warning of the destruction to come.  For the West to think that these attacks will somehow be dealt with by airstrikes is a further example of belief perseverance. Why can’t we in the West see the rage and the contempt for western values that we are provoking?

Anyone close to the Arab world or to the followers of Islam will tell you that there is a growing and justifiable anger about the way Israel, in its pursuit of Hamas, and with almost uncritical Western support is laying waste to an ancient civilisation and being blind to the slaughtering of innocent fellow Arabs in the tens of thousands.

Directors need to start opening channels of communication to people and groups who can represent these points of view. They need to ask whether they want their company to stay silent in the face of the so many lost and ruined civilian lives.

Because, when you think about it, one vital ingredient for collective intelligence is actually simple human empathy.

My questions for the board would include the following:

Within the swirling emotions of the Gaza crisis to whom are you listening? Are you inviting in contrarian opinions on this and other emotive issues? What do your employees feel?

Are you reaching out to the Palestinian and Arab and Moslem communities as well the Jewish ones to hear their feelings about Gaza and to demonstrate your empathy for the suffering in Gaza and Israel?

Are you offering any practical help to those who are suffering?

Is it right and in the long term interest of your business that you use your company’s voice to express concern about the slaughter in Gaza and the state-tolerated violence to Palestinians in the West Bank?

Is your organisation prepared in the event of new terror attacks, sanctions and interruption of trade?

Are you sharing your concern with governments?

Mark Goyder is the Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank


[i] Collective Intelligence: how to build a business that’s smarter than you. Jeniffer Sundberg and Pippa Begg LID Publishing 2023