Don’t let your blind spots derail you

24 October, 2016

How to identify and overcome blind spots in your leadership

‘Scotoma’, derived from the Greek skótos, meaning darkness, is the name for an area of obscured vision in your otherwise normal field of vision. The point of entry of the optic nerve on your retina is insensitive to light, and so, your vision is ‘blinded’ here. You also know it as your ‘blind spot’.

Just like this anatomical blind spot throws off what could you could see clearly otherwise, as leaders you can encounter blind spots – unrecognised weaknesses or threats that can undermine your effectiveness.

Let’s face it. As leaders, we all make mistakes.  We sometimes rely on the wrong data or poor advice. Sometimes, we make the wrong choice. Sometimes, we place a bet that does not work out. And on occasion, we run out of luck.

Take some time to reflect on your mistakes. Do you get the feeling, oh gosh, what was I thinking? How could I make the mistake”? Why did I not see it coming?  Was I in denial? Did I not act quickly?

Blind spots are mistakes that we make in spite of all the information right in front of eyes. We either don’t see it or don’t know how. Or worse yet, we refuse to see the signs. This is much more pervasive a concern than you probably realise.

Several studies have shown that senior leaders in organisations are especially likely to develop blind spots in their leadership skills. Consequently, they become more insular and removed from on ground realities, misjudge situations, and end up making less optimal decisions than they would have otherwise.

There is a good chance that you are doing this too. And you’re not just impacting your own leadership effectiveness as a result. You are, by translation, also having a more magnified impact on your team and the organisation.

So, my message this week is on how to identify and overcome your blind spots.

Common blind spots

In a great book, Leadership Blindspots, Robert Bruce Shaw talks about the 20 most common blind spots that he has observed while working as an executive coach. Shaw categorises them as being related to either yourself, your team, your company or your markets. This is a useful model to consider while you reflect on your own possible blind spots. The list could also be a good starting point, so do spend some time thinking through it.

Blind spots about yourself

  1. Overestimating your strategic capability, getting lost in the operational details and not having a strategic view of the business
  2. Valuing being right over being effective; seeking to push your ideas even when a more inclusive approach is needed
  3. Failing to balance the what with the how, Winning-at-all-costs attitude, excessive emphasis on results
  4. Not seeing your impact on others; not understanding how your behaviour affects others
  5. Believing the rules don’t apply to you and not walking the talk
  6. Thinking the present is the past and being unwilling to change; what got you here may not take you to where you need to go next

Blind spots about your team

  1. Failing to focus on the vital few, spreading the team too thin
  2. Taking your team model for granted; running the team based on your preferences, rather than the needs of the organisation or team members
  3. Overrating the talent on your team, and not sufficiently developing the capabilities of the team
  4. Avoiding tough conversations, resulting in mixed messages and unresolved issues
  5. Trusting the wrong individuals, creating an inner circle and not being open to negative feedback
  6. Not developing a successor because you’re not thinking longer-term for the organisation

Blind spots about your company

  1. Failing to capture the hearts and minds; not communicating and aligning the organisation on the top priorities
  2. Losing touch with your shop floor and getting detached from the business
  3. Treating opinion as fact; and underestimating how power dynamics can affect the information you receive
  4. Misreading the political landscape, not being able to influence and develop strong working relationships with key stakeholders
  5. Putting personal ambition before the company, and feeling that your personal success is more important than the organisation

Blind spots about your market

  1. Clinging to the status quo; being out of touch with the market reality and rationalising keeping the current business model
  2. Underestimating your competitors; and distorting or ignoring information about competitor moves
  3. Being overly optimistic, and overestimating one’s abilities and setting unrealistic targets

Identifying your blind spots

You can’t tackle your blind spots without knowing what they are. And by definition, you’re blind to them, so they most likely won’t be apparent to you at all. So, the first step is to figure out what they are.

It is certainly not easy to identify your blind spots. Sometimes, an overpowering strength has an associated blind spot. For example, a colleague was recently remarking about how one of his biggest strengths is intensity and how that provides a single-minded focus on achieving his objectives. However, for some team members who work with him, the same intensity can be overwhelming.

The other challenge is that blind spots can manifest themselves in different stages of one’s career. For instance, when I was a young manager, I would make a lot of effort to ensure that everyone was bought into a decision. As I got more senior, I realised that while buy-in was important, sometimes speed and decisiveness was also necessary and my previous approach could slow us down if I didn’t adapt my style.

Here are some suggestions that you can try:

1. Become more aware

There are varying levels of blindness; sometimes you are completely oblivious to issues, sometimes you know of them but don’t think you need to act on them. For starters, how many of the blind spots in the list mentioned earlier, do you think could be relevant for you? If none, then maybe you need to think harder.

There can be no change without you being willing to open up, actively seek feedback and commit to working on it. It is always helpful to ask people who know you well what they think your blind spots are. You could also use input from processes like 360 degree feedback to reflect on. For instance, take a look at your self-assessment scores in the 360 degree survey. Did you rate yourself much higher than what others rated you? In what dimensions? An honest introspection can provide you with some useful pointers.

2. Reflect

Think back over your career, to things that haven’t gone well. Shaw suggests a useful diagnostic:

  • What are the biggest mistakes you have made in your career?
  • What are the causes of each mistake?
  • Are there patterns or common elements across these mistakes?
  • Do these patterns suggest recurring blind spots?
  • What actions can you take to prevent these mistakes in the future? 

3. Understand your habits

As Bruna Martinuzzi in 8 Ways to Conquer Your Leadership Blind Spots explains: ‘Blind spots are not necessarily weaknesses—they can also be habits or instinctive reactions to situations. For example, do your workload and stress cause you to interrupt people in meetings in order to speed up things?’ You would be most likely to get this feedback from people you interact with regularly on daily projects.

4. Consider the downside of your strengths

Interestingly, as Martinuzzi points out, one of the areas to probe is your strengths. When stretched too far, they can become detractors. What are your defining strengths? Are there situations in which these could become weaknesses?

5. Solicit feedback from people who have good insights about you

If your boss knows you well, ask her for feedback on the Impact you are having on others. Or ask for feedback from a third party. In these sessions, don’t justify your behaviour. Just listen.

Overcoming your blind spots

Blind spots are inevitable. They can appear in close proximity to one’s strengths. They can also reappear over time. So, it is important to try to become more aware of them so that they don’t derail you.

Here are some approaches that could be helpful:

1. Have your own devil’s advocate

John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin in their article Three Tips For Overcoming Your Blind Spots highlight the problem of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information to back your hypothesis, as one of the most common blind spots that leaders fight. Their suggestion is to have a devil’s advocate to combat it: ‘Dealing with confirmation bias is about reining in your impulses and challenging your own assumptions. It’s difficult to stick to it day in and out. That’s why it’s important to have in your circle of advisers a brainy, tough-as-nails devil’s advocate who – perhaps annoyingly, but valuably – checks you constantly.’

2. Build a diverse team

Many people tend to hire team members who are more like them, instead of looking for what could be a more complementary mix. It could be potentially very derailing. Having similar people can be great for team work, but it can also cause ‘correlated blind spots’ – when you are so similar, you end up with the same blind spots across the team. How often do you hire in your own image? You could be making a trade-off between unidimensional, albeit aligned thinking and constructive debate with more diverse viewpoints.

3. Stay connected to the front line

Don’t become too internally focused. The more information and exposure you get, the more likely you are to broaden your perspective and protect against becoming insular. So, carve out more time to spend on ground with your team members, meet more customers and partners and network more within your peer groups.

4. Be objective

Many of us tend to see only what we want to see. We seek data accordingly. Don’t play with data or distort it to just confirm your beliefs. This is a common fallacy that I see for example in our marketing teams when they use focus groups. It is important to be objective. Ask the right questions and challenge your core assumptions. Ask for supporting data. Don’t lead the witness.

5. Develop peripheral vision

Try to recognise warning signs before they become major problems. This is a difficult skill to master. Try reading the lines between what people are saying or not saying. Look for non-verbal cues. Dig deeper into the data and learn to look for any leading indicators.

Recognising and working on your blind spots is arguably one of the longer, tougher and more deeply personal journeys that you will take as a leader. It can also be very transformative. Even as we grapple with this at an individual level, we also need to introspect harder as a team about the organisational blind spots that we may be missing out on.

I look forward to your thoughts.



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