Late last year, a nurse in the US spoke out about her concern that people who had contracted COVID and landed in intensive care refused to believe it was real. They simply rejected everything medical professionals were telling them, and would not allow the information to seep in.
Far from being exclusive to COVID, information avoidance is actually a huge phenomenon studied by economists and psychologists.
People who suffer from it are aware of information that is completely free to consume, or would even cost a lot of money to avoid. But, they still avoid it.
In the workplace, we see information avoidance every day – and it can cause major problems between colleagues, staff and managers, and teams.
Why we may avoid information
Information avoidance is not neglecting or failing to collect enough information to make an informed decision. It’s actively avoiding information in order to stay in a state of “ignorance is bliss.”
There are 2 key reasons why we might do this:
1. As a strategic advantage
When we avoid information for strategic reasons, it’s often because knowing the information would put us at a disadvantage.
For example, let’s say a colleague wishes to inform you about underhanded dealings in your organisation. To know could put your own job at risk, so you actively avoid learning the information so you can use it to your benefit.
2. As a tool to avoid negative feelings
Sometimes when we learn things we wish we could unlearn them. That way, we don’t have to deal with the consequences.
For example, you may avoid checking your bank balance when it’s low because you don’t want to feel bad or face the situation.
If you feel unwell, you might avoid diagnostic tests because knowing the result would force the reality of the condition upon you. Or perhaps you fear it would impact your ability to get insurance (which is also strategic).
The benefits of not knowing are very real. However, is it really in our best interest?
Information avoidance in the workplace
In the workplace, information avoidance can take many forms. The most common is actively avoiding feedback about your leadership style or performance. This is terribly sad, because it’s usually those who would benefit from feedback the most that are likely to avoid it.
Another common example is letting unethical behaviour slip because you choose not to find out what’s going on. Burying your head in the sand feels safer and easier, and allows you to claim plausible deniability down the track.
In the real world, information avoidance can lead to a spread of disease as people actively avoid finding out what’s wrong. In the workplace, dis-ease can become endemic where negative behaviours, attitudes or performance spread simply because they are tolerated.
The first step to identifying information avoidance in the workplace is to look out for the avoidance tactics people use.
- Physical – a person will not open an email, do research, or attend a meeting to hear feedback
- Inattention – a person has access to data and may read the information, but will not put a second thought to it
- Biased interpretation – a person accesses data but denies the reality (i.e.: receiving feedback and being convinced everyone is against them)
- Forgetting – this could be deliberate or passive, but the person distances themselves mentally from the information
- Self-handicapping – a person constantly chooses tasks that are poorly matched to their abilities
Self-handicapping can be hard to pick up on, but it generally applies to those who choose activities or jobs that are so easy they are always guaranteed to succeed. Or, so hard that they are always guaranteed to fail.
What to do if this is you
Poor decision making has a real cost in life and work. You may not even be aware that you are avoiding information until you look back on various situations and consider how it applies to you. But the more awareness you have about it, the more you can start to challenge yourself when you notice that you’re doing it.
I’ve helped many leaders and staff confront their tendency for information avoidance, and I love when someone has an “ah ha!” moment and sees how they have been sabotaging their own or their team’s success.
Connect with people who you know can give honest and productive feedback, and then make a point to really consider it. You can do the same if you think you are enabling your team to be information avoiders. Set the example by connecting with them regularly, asking for feedback, and then giving your feedback in a constructive way.
If you would like to connect with someone in a safe space where you can work on these skills in confidence, please start with a free 15 minute coaching session.