A common phrase for those that do not address immediate or critical concerns in the workplace is to “bury their heads in the sand.” Even small children, immediately think of ostriches when hearing the phrase and will bend over with their head near their feet to show how they can look like an ostrich. In popular culture, the metaphor of being like the ostrich has grown in popularity to the point that it is prevalent in many religious, business, sport, and management metaphors. However, the metaphor suffers from one major weakness: ostriches really do not bury their heads.
It is believed that the myth gained credibility from the writings of Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). He was a Roman of many interests and is credited with assembling the first comprehensive encyclopedia of common knowledge. His 37 volumes of the most important knowledge of his day not only withstood Roman times, but was a resource during the Dark Ages. He is credited with the ostrich myth due a passage in Book 10, Chapter 1: “…they imagine when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed”.
Although the “burying your head in the sand” behavior did not arise from the ostrich, it is still a very meaningful metaphor. Avoiding hard decisions and effort laden actions are very common occurrences in personal as well as professional life. I hear from managers on a regular basis that a decision was “just too tough to make at the time” or it will take too much effort to do the “right thing” and something else is just better since we can invest less energy. History is full of examples of spectacular failures that started with that justification. With that in mind, let’s examine three common behaviors related to the ostrich myth:
• Hiding from issues
• No one sees it
• Misperceived action
Hiding from Issues
Some employees as well as leaders truly bury their heads when facing challenging issues or efforts. The primary causes of the behavior include: conflictual situations where you will have to manage conflict between individuals or parties, controversial decisions that result in winners and losers, or initiation of effort intensive processes that draw on scare resources and require more than the usual effort. I refer to the “cult of inaction” in working with groups to draw attention to the human desire to postpone those things that we dread doing or are unpleasant even if they are necessary and much less painful if done quickly. A favorite example that I will share with managers is pulling off a Band-Aid or going to the dentist when you have a toothache. When we hide from issues or decisions, we need to be cognizant of the cost of inaction. What options, resources, or capabilities do we lose by waiting to act? In some situations, the best alternatives after waiting are much more costly than the worst options, initially.
No One Sees It
A common attitude toward dealing with major issues is similar to one of the funniest characteristics of our house cat and Pliny the Elder’s original observation of ostriches. Our hose cat is much smarter than the two dogs and has made sneaking treats an art form. One of the most interesting facets of her behavior is her belief that if she cannot see anyone, no one can see her. When she sneaks something from the kitchen, she runs to the closest corner and faces the corner to finish it. As long as she looks at the corner, she assumes no one can see her or what she is doing. It is not uncommon for employees as well as managers to assume that if people are not aware of the issue then it does not exist. Early in my career, I worked for a gentleman that would tell us that “something does not exist until everyone knows.” Just because something is not common knowledge, it does not mean it is not important or that is does not need action.
Some researchers equate the origination of the buried head myth as an actual behavior of the ostrich that was misinterpreted by initial observers. The American Ostrich Society summarizes the misperception as follows:
This tale originates from the fact that the male ostrich will dig a large hole (up to 6 to 8 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep) in the sand for the nest. Predators cannot see the eggs across the countryside which gives the nest a bit of protection. The hen as well as the rooster takes turns setting on the eggs and because of the indention in the ground, usually just blend into the horizon. All birds turn their eggs (with their beak) several times a day during the incubation period. From a distance it appears as though the bird has his/her head in the sand.
When a hard decision has to be made or a tough process initiated, it is important that clarity is provided to those impacted by the decision or process. One of the biggest communication concerns of employees in almost any organization is that they do not understanding why major decisions are made the way they are and how it relates to the overall direction and benefit of the organization. I have worked with a number of organizations that accused their leadership of “burying his or her head” when in reality it was an issue of clear and open communication not avoidance.
The workplace given its dynamic environment requires addressing problems as they occur and before they become larger issues or problems. Action is a key to success.