Managers Turn a Blind Eye

When you’re a manager, turning a blind eye to an uncomfortable situation can cause big headaches later on.

For example, managers may put off conversations with underperforming staff. Instead of tackling the issue directly, the leader will allow poor work habits, tardiness, missed deadlines and the like, to go unacknowledged.

Other managers may ignore issues such as not wearing proper safety equipment or following protocols, in favour of keeping the peace or getting the job done. Sometimes anxious or depressed workers are left to fend for themselves when supervisors, reluctant to broach the topic, sweep the issue under the rug. When there is evidence of harassment or bullying, some bosses bite their tongues, telling themselves it will work itself out.

Inevitably, these issues do not resolve without supervisory intervention. Leaving things to fester until they blow up is a familiar management avoidance technique that can result in poor work quality, physical injury, grievances and disability claims. Avoiding or hiding from brewing trouble nets a far worse outcome in the long run, than the short term pain of bringing up uncomfortable topics in the first place. Leaders suffer when they fail to tackle difficult issues, especially when the problem escalates leading to a variety of negative outcomes.

One outcome is a loss of respect for the leader. The manager who buries her head in the sand can end up being seen as weak, ineffective and lacking in decisiveness. This can hobble her leadership and make it difficult to gain back the trust needed to guide staff.

Another offshoot of avoiding a problem is cynicism in the department. For example, when staff observe situations in which lax team members aren’t dealt with, they feel unfairly treated and used. Once staff feel taken advantage of, they may reduce the effort they expend at work. Productivity drops and the leader finds it difficult to inspire staff to increase their performance.

Yet, despite the conventional wisdom found in the idea of bringing things up before they blow up, leaders still tend to opt for silence too often.

But why?

New To Culture

Leaders who are new to the company can find themselves turning a blind eye to issues as they get to know staff and understand the organization. However, if this goes on too long, tongue biting becomes a habit. The leader may be experiencing a cultural norm when encountering pressure to “let things go.”. This may have been the way the organization ran itself prior to the leader being assigned their post. It is important to observe the culture for a while but to eventually create a plan in which problems are dealt with in a timely fashion.

Leader Characteristics

Some leaders are naturally able to deal effectively with problems as they arise. Others tend to avoid conflict, or become overly accommodating when faced with a contentscious issue. These traits may have served the leader well in the past. However, these leader behaviours, if over-used need to be changed. Consider learning how to engage in difficult conversations with staff as part of your leader development if you recognize in yourself the tendency to communicate indirectly or to accommodate too easily.

Friendly Leaders

Managers who want to be friends with staff or see staff as “family” sometimes fail to have conversations about problematic staff behaviours. The desire to be friends and the belief that this is the best way to manage, lies behind avoiding difficult conversations. This is particularly true when managers have come up through the ranks and they find themselves managing former peers. A conversation with former peers about the change in relationship is important to offset this tendency upon promotion.

There are three steps to ensuring that you don’t turn a blind eye at work.

1. Make An Inventory

Take some time to write down all the troubling things you see in the department but are not addressing. What are you not bringing up? What are staff not bringing up? What tends to be allowed to slip by? Write all these down. Notice how you might feel reluctant to even shed this kind of light on some situations in the department.

2. Analyze Yourself

Once you have a list of things that are being left unsaid, ask yourself why you allow certain things to continue. Are you avoiding conflict, are you wanting to be a friend, are you new to the culture? Is confronting an issue effectively a new skill you need to acquire? Imagine what will happen if you stop turning a blind eye. What would the repercussions be? What could happen if you continue to turn a blind eye? Look around – who else may be turning a blind eye? Your staff, your peers, your boss? How could you enlist their aid to make changes?

3. Have A Conversation

Consider your inventory of taboo topics and decide a plan of action. You may decide to bring people together to discuss how the department as a whole is turning a blind eye to issues such as each others safety. Or, you may decide to speak privately to underperformers about your observations. Alternatively, if the issue involves your boss, this may be your first stop on the way to discussing previously avoided topics.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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