Don't be an ostrich: why you shouldn't ignore problems at work

  • Blog
  • 7th June 2017

Have you ever encountered a particularly nasty problem, but instead of confronting it you’ve ignored it in the hope it’ll simply go away? If you have, we could compare you to the most dim-witted bird – the humble ostrich.

Okay, we may have been slightly harsh there. While the world’s largest birds may have brains that are smaller than their eyeballs and a reputation for blindly running into obstacles, they’re actually not as dumb as we might think.

One of the stupidest things ostriches are supposedly known for is burying their heads in sand whenever they sense danger, to appear invisible to predators. The only problem with this defence mechanism is that while their heads might be out of sight, their substantially larger bodies would still be sticking out plain as day. Oh, and they’d die of asphyxiation too. So much for survival!

But it may come as no surprise that this is actually a big fat myth. So where did this weird idea come from?

It’s widely accepted that it originates from something remarkably similar. When facing threat, rather than burying their heads, ostriches press their long necks to the ground to become less visible. Their plumage camouflages them well from the view of any predators, but from long distance, it appears as if they have actually stuck their heads into the ground.

Much like ostriches attempting to steer clear of danger, if you have ever willingly ignored a pressing problem rather than resolving to fix it in good time, you’ve succumbed to the Ostrich Effect – by figuratively ‘burying your head in the sand’.

But the good news is you’re not alone. Our inherent fight-or-flight response activates whenever we encounter a potentially harmful issue or situation, and many of us will subconsciously choose to bury our heads in the sand to protect ourselves from the problem rather than facing it head-on.

It’s easy to fall foul to the Ostrich Effect. Avoiding opening that nagging email because we know we won’t like what’s inside. Making excuses for missing deadlines because we can’t bring ourselves to own up to our mistakes. Fighting against a change because we’re afraid of the outcome.

But perhaps it also has a fairly easy answer. Just as ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand, we shouldn’t allow the ostrich in our heads to take over. Tackling problems straightaway stops them spiralling out of control.

So we should open that email, come clean about that missed deadline, and embrace that change. Perhaps our best defence mechanism is to fight our own biological defences – and instead of cowering away from our problems, to sprint at them at the speed of an ostrich.

So long as we don’t bash into any obstacles.