Are You Ignoring Your Gray Rhinos?

Author Michele Wucker discusses the consequences of ignoring the obvious, whether it's a cultural phenomenon or a seemingly small issue at work.

Michele WuckerA former financial journalist who went on to serve as president of the World Policy Institute and vice president of studies at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Wucker is the author of LOCKOUT: Why Americans Keep Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right and — coming in February — The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act On the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.

What will you be talking about at Convening Leaders 2016?

It’s basically to point out how bad we are at dealing with highly obvious things. There’s this very basic human impulse to ignore what we know we have to deal with. You multiply that by the number of people in a community, in an organization, in a country, on the planet, and you start to get a little bit better idea of why we are so bad at dealing with obvious things. The last several years, we’ve seen a lot more interest in behavioral economics and the things that we can do to create new habits, to make ourselves aware of some of our blind spots and difficulties in recognizing things. Once you’re able to recognize those and visualize them to get something emotional to hang onto, you can do a lot better at keeping it in the front of your head and actually motivating yourself to do something.

Why do people and organizations tend to ignore Gray Rhinos, which you describe as “high-impact, highly likely threats,” in favor of Black Swans, which are rare or unlikely crises?

It’s a combination of things. We have a defensive mechanism. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talked about in her work On Death and Dying, denial is the first stage. That’s to protect us from a shock. The second [factor] is that there are a lot of cognitive biases that often turn around and lead us to denial — our decision-making systems, the way we talk about things in groups, the way we turn to other people for affirmation, and the way we are more likely to prioritize short-term gains. The other reason that we do this is, there are a lot of structural problems. Perverse incentives. If you know you’re going to get bailed out, you’ll go and do increasingly risky behavior. Every time you take a risk and it turns out okay, you’re more likely to take more risks, because the consequences aren’t always immediately apparent.

Is there a role meetings and conferences can play in helping their attendees focus on the Gray Rhinos of their industry?

That’s actually interesting, and I’m really glad you made that connection. Look at the digital world and what it’s done to traditional media. The way a lot of successful [media companies] have dealt with that is to increasingly make money off conferences and meetings and in-person opportunities to network and interact, that become that much more important when we do so much online. It’s the quality of the in-person interaction that’s going to determine whether people show up at your conference or not.

Do you have one takeaway that you’d like your audience to go away with?

The main thing is that you need to recognize that things stand in the way of seeing what’s right in front of you that could be very, very dangerous. Those obstacles aren’t insurmountable. With the right strategies, you can see what’s in front of you. You can figure out how to deal with it. You can not only avoid being trampled, but you might actually end up better off for it.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.