How To Identify And Overcome Blindspots
Blindspots are often found in close proximity to a leader’s strengths. As a result, they can reappear over time as a leader does what he or she does best. Factors that give rise to blindspots and make them an ongoing challenge are:
Experience Gaps: A leader’s history is often missing particular experiences that make blindspots more likely in specific areas or situations. In this case, leaders don’t see or fully understand what they have never experienced. More specifically, past experiences result in leaders’ extrapolating from what they have experienced in the past to what is needed in new situations, particularly when they or their firms have achieved successes using a particular approach. In so doing, they assume that they are now facing a similar situation when, in fact, the demands are quite different.
Information Overload: A second factor in the persistence of blindspots is the tendency of people to simplify an overly complex world in order to focus on tasks that require their full attention.The total amount of cognitive energy we have is limited, and it is adaptive to pay attention to some issues while ignoring others. In so doing, people automate or make habitual many of the decisions they make because the energy required to pay attention to everything going on around them would soon overwhelm them.
Emotional Bias: A third factor to consider is how an emotional investment in a particular outcome can influence how an individual views a situation, with the “facts” being slanted to support a preferred outcome.
Cognitive Dissonance: Social psychologists have studied what occurs when one holds two conflicting views, particularly when those views are related to one’s self-image. The term they use to describe this uncomfortable state is cognitive dissonance. The conflict is resolved through rationalizing one’s beliefs or actions in a manner that sustains one’s positive self-image.
Consider the individual who views himself as an honest person but then engages in acts that could be seen as dishonest or unethical. This creates a conflict for the individual. He will then change how he views the situation in order to uphold a positive self-image.
Misaligned Incentives: Compensation systems are designed to focus attention and effort within an organization, with the result being that people focus more on some areas than on others. For instance, a company may reward the achievement of quarterly sales targets and the aggressive management of budgets. However, it may have no formal metric for assessing customer views of the company and the products or services it provides. The result can be blindspots in particular areas.
Hierarchical Distortions: As an individual rises in a firm, the information that he or she receives is sometimes incomplete, distorted or even false. Leaders can become detached from the lower levels of their organizations, as time is consumed by corporate-level meetings and the needs of stakeholders. As a result, senior leaders rely more and more on secondhand information gained through a variety of people and systems.
Second, some people defer to those in positions of authority and offer little or no challenge to the leader’s beliefs and plans. Thus, a leader with blindspots may not receive contrary feedback because others are afraid of the consequences if they come forward with a contrary point of view. Third, more powerful people generally pay less attention to less powerful people. Some leaders are less aware of how people below them are responding to them as leaders and, more generally, less aware of what is occurring in their teams and organizations.
Overconfidence: Perhaps the most important factor to consider regarding the persistence of blindspots is the tendency of people to overestimate their own capabilities. Self-assured leaders can easily come to believe that their skills are the primary factor producing positive outcomes (rather than the contributions of many others, or even luck). These leaders can also believe their skills are applicable to a wide range of challenges, some beyond what they have experienced in the past.
How to overcome blindspots
See It for Yourself. Many leaders feel less power than they felt would be the case on moving up in their companies, particularly in regard to managing their schedules. Internally, time is consumed in dealing with a range of important topics such as developing long-term strategies and solving operational issues. Externally, particularly for those in senior roles, there are obligations to industry groups, institutional shareholders, financial analysts and the media. Executives can, as a result, work for months without leaving the confines of their headquarters building. Customers and frontline employees easily fade into the background.
In order to see what is going on for themselves, leaders need to develop practices that increase their awareness in four areas: customers and markets, frontline colleagues, high-potential talent and outsiders.
Seek Out That Which Disconfirms What You Believe. One of the most robust findings in the research on decision making is that people tend to see what they want to see, and they interpret new information within the context of their existing beliefs. This makes seeing something different from what they already know or want to occur very difficult.
To counter this, leaders need to surface disconfirming data — which is defined as information that challenges the basic assumptions and beliefs of a leader. One of the keys to surfacing such data is asking the right questions. In seeking information that challenges your existing views, you will want to focus on these areas: your leadership impact your team’s strengths and weaknesses, your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and the markets and industry in which you compete.
Develop Peripheral Vision and See What Others Miss. Leadership often demands bold moves — an industry-altering acquisition, a major investment in an innovative technology, the opening of a new regional market, a wide-ranging reorganization. The best leaders use both hard and soft data to improve the quality of their decisions in such areas. This requires that they take advantage of the views of others, especially those who are in the best position to assess the consequences of a particular course of action, as well as to point out a leader’s potential blindspots or biases.
For a variety of reasons, individuals often communicate in subtle or even misleading ways to those above them. In some cases, those at the top of the organization and those at lower levels participate in an unspoken collusion, with the goal of avoiding conflict. Effective leaders create a culture that promotes straight talk, but also pay attention to the nuances of communication in the decision making process.
Build a Network of Trusted Advisors in Critical Areas. Some individuals, on being promoted into senior leadership roles, experience a distinct sense of being on their own. They are now responsible for decisions that will determine the fate of their companies or groups — with implications not only for themselves but also for their colleagues, customers and shareholders. Leaders also realize that many of those who provide them with advice on key decisions have their own agendas — including in some cases a desire to enhance their power and position within the company. Successful leaders learn to discern the extent to which the advice they are given is limited by the knowledge or motives of those offering it.
Promote Productive Team Fights on the Vital Few Priorities. Building a strong team is one of the most important actions a leader can take to surface and manage blindspots. In many respects, the leader creates the team, and the team then creates the leader — as a primary source of feedback and advice, it becomes a key influence on the leader’s thinking and behavior. The best teams have the skill and confidence to challenge a leader when he or she is viewing a situation in an inaccurate or incomplete manner.
Blindspots don’t just disappear when you become aware of them or take action to address them. They resurface over time or are displaced by other blindspots that become salient as you face new challenges. Remaining aware of blindspots requires vigilance and humility as you come to appreciate, and perhaps even value, the limits of your knowledge and skill — and how to lead forcefully even with that awareness.That’s a lesson worth learning.
Related post: Three Tips for Overcoming Your Blind Spot