"There’s a natural human tendency to rationalize shortcuts under pressure, especially when nothing bad happens. The lack of bad outcomes can reinforce the “rightness” of trusting past success instead of objectively assessing risk."
-- The Cost of Silence: Normalization of Deviance and Groupthink, Terry Wilcutt and Hal Bell
On the morning of January 28th, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Approximately one minute into its flight, the shuttle disintegrated over the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, a shuddering, knotted ball of heat and flame.
No one survived.
The Challenger's explosion was a seminal event; it's been endlessly studied and dissected-- from ethics in the workplace to trauma in children (many American children saw the liftoff in classrooms because school teacher and payload specialist Christa McAuliffe was aboard) and more. Of the critically important lessons that the Challenger disaster taught, chief among them is what sociologist Diane Vaughan came to call the "normalization of deviance". Normalization of deviance is a quintessential, archetypical, classic human behavior. Vaughan defines it as such:
a long incubation period [before a final disaster] with early warning signs that were either misinterpreted, ignored or missed completely.
Sure, this definition might have initially been about a rocket exploding, but it also rings true to anyone who's sat in a post-mortem after a really, really bad outage. Or, recently, when watching tech conglomerates reveal ill thought-out product releases. The connective tissue is the same: many disasters are slow, preventable, ambling messes, like plaque lining an artery. It's not a problem until it really, really is.
Dan Luu, noted software engineer, talks about the normalization of deviance in the tech sector. He rightly points out that evidence of normalization is everywhere, in every company, big and small, from brand name to 'what's that?'. In an essay totally worth your time, Luu outlines the beating heart of the problem pretty succinctly: giving necessary, truthful feedback is hard.
In most company cultures, people feel weird about giving feedback. [...] This is a problem even when cultures discourage meanness and encourage feedback: cultures of niceness seem to have as many issues around speaking up as cultures of meanness, if not more. In some places, people are afraid to speak up because they'll get attacked by someone mean. In others, they're afraid because they'll be branded as mean. It's a hard problem.
So, what should we do? If this normalization is apparent in every profession, what can we possibly say to turn the tide? How can we combat the entropy quietly living within each of us? I don't have a lot of answers, but I exhort you to be brave. I myself have known the tiny terror of keeping quiet, the thumping in my chest when I know things are going wrong and I don't speak up.
On the other hand, I have also heard the rushing cacophony of my conscience when I don't.