There are often pressures, implicit and explicit, to ignore reality. As leaders we need to face the truth, no matter how difficult it may be.
Japan is known for many things, among them one of the lowest crime rates in a developed country. Japan also boosts a murder clearance rate of about 95%, 19 out of 20 murders are solved.
Critics, however, paint a different picture. Some have argued that Japan intentionally suppresses the statistics by how they define murder, to the point of pretending a murder isn’t a murder. In Bruce Wallace’s Japan’s police see no evil article in the Los Angeles Times Wallace interviews former police who describe a culture in which they will avoid autopsies and seeking evidence which might suggest murder unless they are likely to solve the case. By doing so, they claim the death was not a murder and then whether or not it gets solved keeps the murder rate down and the clearance rate up. A Vox article describes forced confessions, true or otherwise, to help keep the clearance rate high.
There’s an implicit argument for all this. A high murder rate and/or low clearance rate upsets people. This is true in general, and we certainly see frustrated populaces in high crime communities. In Japan, a society that values harmony more than most, unsolved murders undermine the very fabric of society. Some may argue that a certain number of unsolved murders is worth that trade off.
You’re probably not one of those people. Many readers, Japanese or not, may take issue with the policing. Denying the facts does not change reality. The disharmony from admitting the truth pales in comparison to the harm done by letting murderers go free.
In your job you probably don’t encounter many murders and consequently have no pressure to reclassify them otherwise. But what things, not as egregious as murder, do you, your team, or your company, choose to ignore?
When Blue Bell Creameries detected listeria, CEO Paul Krause ended the quality control program to test for the deadly bacteria. As with Japan’s murder clearance rate, a policy of don’t ask don’t tell led to some very “successful” metrics. Also, as with Japan’s policing, pretending it wasn’t a problem didn’t prevent further deaths, at least ten cases and three deaths were linked to the company.
Again, your decisions and your products probably aren’t life or death. It may be rigging emissions data, which “only” harms the environment. It might be pretending the project is on time when it isn’t, or that the component is better quality than it really is.
As leaders we do a disservice—to our teams, our customers, our shareholders, and ourselves—when we choose to ignore reality. In concluding his report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disasters, Richard Feynman famously wrote, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." He argued that NASA’s culture of silencing risk to ensure good headlines put them on a collision path with reality; one that in this particular case led to seven tragic deaths.
It always reminds me of the cartoon character who runs off a cliff. For a few seconds the character stays suspended in midair, unaware of the lack of terra firma beneath his feet. But inevitably reality sets in and the comedic fall ensues. Pretending gravity doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Likewise pretending the data isn’t what it is, doesn’t change reality.
While you may not put lives at risk, chances are you make decisions every day. Often, we need to incorporate bad news into our thinking and people, systems, and culture sometimes pressure us, explicitly or implicitly, to ignore the bad news, or at least discount it in some way. As a leader you have a responsibility to make sure the reality you see isn’t silenced in the name of harmony.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.