This conversation has made me think more about blind spots and how unidentified blind spots undermine leaders and business results. I began to examine what I felt are most common blind spots from self-experience (examination) and from observing others and how they not only limit one person’s success but everyone’s success. I looked at the symptoms of each behaviour as well as the impact of the blind spot. Blind spots affect everyone you work with, whether you intend to impact others or not.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Blind spots are the root causes of some of the most severe breakdowns faced by leaders, organizations, and societies. Leaders who are unaware of how their behaviour impacts others can create dire and unintended consequences. Blind spots corrupt decision making, reduce our scope of awareness, and lock in rigid and fixed viewpoints.
Everyone suffers when leaders are not awake to their blind spots. The work environment becomes lacklustre and pessimistic. People spend more time talking about what is not working, than working. Productivity and performance drop. And mistakes and breakdowns are quietly covered up instead of openly discussed and resolved. No one takes accountability, but everyone freely hands out blame. An entire enterprise becomes focused on looking good instead of being effective.
Two things are clear:
1. Everyone has blind spots—unproductive behaviours that undermine effectiveness, limit results, and damage relationships.
2. You cannot see your own blind spots without the partnership and support of others, no matter how clever or discerning you are.
Blind spots are automatic behaviours that people readily see in others yet avoid confronting in themselves. If I had of told this person yesterday what blind spots they have, they would deny them, or would argue, debate, and defend why they do what you do. At best, they might off intellectually agree they have a blind spot or two.
But let me be clear: we all have blind spots. It does not matter how successful you are. In fact, most successful leaders are unaware of two things: (1) the impact of their blind spots on others and (2) the degree to which others work around them and avoid confronting the real issues. What these leaders fail to realize is how their behaviour works against them in achieving the very results they want.
For many of us, the very idea that we might have a blind spot—something we cannot see—is uncomfortable and threatening. Behavioural blind spots sound like character flaws, defects, or something that is wrong about us. Even the language we use—such as “I was blindsided by what happened”—reinforces our dislike of not being in total control. We are socialized to believe we should not have any glaring weaknesses, especially those that are concealed from our view.
Blind spots are not flaws, nor are they deliberate; they are unconscious behaviours.
The real culprits are not the blind spots themselves; the offenders are unidentified and mismanaged blind spots. The automatic nature of blind spots—their ability to appear anytime and anywhere produces cycles of unproductive behaviours between individuals and groups that undermine change initiatives and business results. These cycles of unproductive behaviours also derail careers, sabotage success, and lead to ineffective decision making and execution. Although people can see the impact of unproductive behaviour, they look the other way. It is an uncomfortable situation to deal with because people do not have a constructive method to resolve difficult situations or issues.
Without a clear and explicit standard of behaviour, and a shared methodology to apply it in daily business transactions, unproductive behavioural norms form by default and degrade the culture and workplace environment. If leaders understood the degree to which blind spots undercut the results of their organizations, they would be screaming for solutions.
There is good news in all of this. You can defeat the cycle of automatic and unproductive behaviour and build a culture of accountability. Great leadership starts with establishing uniform behavioural standards and learning how to confront and overcome blind spots.
When leaders complain about stalled initiatives, inconsistent execution, or lack of leadership alignment, the primary source of the problem can be traced to the lack of a uniform standard of behaviour that is consistently applied.
In helping my pier learn how they could be more effective, we focused on areas they could influence and change: personal behaviours that were limiting their success and results.
It is one thing to understand blind spots at an intellectual level and another to recognize the emotional impact on others. What is alarming is how leaders unconsciously teach others poor behaviour. For instance, leaders who consistently blamed others taught their people that it was appropriate to point the finger at other groups in the organization and avoid accountability. Poor behaviour was informally taught by how leaders behaved and then it was copied by others. Unproductive behaviour spread to entire groups and business units where people learned how to operate in silos, defend their interests, and engage in unhealthy competition. In all of this, the enterprise perspective was lost and performance suffered.
It is pointless to rely on yourself to accurately identify your blind spots. This is an area in which your point of view is irrelevant. It takes an outside perspective—such as that of your peers, direct reports or 360 degree feedback to let you know which blind spots you have. Others have a firsthand experience of your impact, while all you have is an intellectual assessment of how you think you come across.
If you are like most leaders, you may have the belief that although your behaviour is not perfect, it certainly is not harmful. But before you jump to this conclusion, start by honestly examining where you have blind spots. It is only when you can clearly see your blind spots that you have access to dramatically increasing your effectiveness. It starts by understanding the chasm that exists between what you intend and how you behave.
Blind Spot 1: Going It Alone
The Number 1 blind spot is going it alone. Leaders who are self-sufficient, independent, and resourceful often fall prey to this blind spot. When facing a tough challenge, they feel responsible and shoulder the burden by themselves. With an innate need to be strong and tough, leaders who go it alone endure whatever is necessary. They unintentionally exclude others from decision making—colleagues, friends, and even family—and withdraw their energy and support. Every degree of isolation in which the leader separates from others and the organization fragments the team and erodes momentum.
Symptoms of Going It Alone
• Rejecting offers of support and not asking for help
• Not talking about stress, pressure, or anxiety
• Isolating and withdrawing from others (not being accessible)
• Not including others in decision making
• Deflecting others’ concerns by making vague statements such as “I have a lot on my mind”
The Impact of Going It Alone. When you go it alone, you create a high level of stress and frustration in others. While you are internally focused on what you need to do, others experience a high state of anxiety. From their perspective, you are “missing in action,” and they take their attention off of business needs and focus on what is happening to you.
Because you are not focusing externally on others, your ability to pick up cues about their needs and reactions is greatly diminished. You miss how upset and frustrated those around you are. Consistent with the behaviour of going it alone, you reject offers of help and support. This sends a message that says “back off.” People try to reach you, but after a while they give up. In all of this, business results suffer: high levels of anxiety and uncertainty destabilize the team and organization.
When you exclude others, they fill in the blanks. Your behaviour communicates, “I do not need you to think, take action, or lead. I am handling everything myself.”
Blind Spot 2: Being Insensitive to Your Impact on Others
Leaders who are insensitive to their impact on others do not have a clear understanding of how they come across. They miss completely how their choice of words, tone of voice, and nonverbal behaviour sends a message of disapproval and dissatisfaction. Because they have a low threshold for picking up on the reactions of others, they make blunders they cannot see, therefore cannot correct.
When leaders are insensitive to their impact on others, one of two things is occurring: (1) they are unaware of their emotional impact or (2) they recognize their impact but do not care. In my years of experience, I have found that the great majority of leaders care a lot. If you have this blind spot, it is most likely rooted in your inability to read, understand, and respond appropriately to the cues of others, not in callous and cold-hearted views.
In a group, insensitivity to others leads to team dysfunction. Individuals are self-absorbed and drive their personal agenda at the expense of others. A team will spend an inordinate amount of time arguing and posturing. Dissension takes over, and a few vocal members dominate the team while others disengage.
Symptoms of Being Insensitive to Your Impact on Others
• Not noticing, seeking out, or caring what others experience or feel
• Expecting others to respond the same way you do, regardless of cultural differences
• Not recognizing how your comments and behaviours provoke a negative response
• Criticizing, devaluing input, and questioning the credibility of others
• Minimizing others’ reactions to your behaviour such as “They’ll get over it”
The Impact of Being Insensitive to Others. When you are insensitive to others, people avoid you and withdraw their trust. At best, they merely tolerate you. They keep their guard up to protect themselves from feeling devalued and unappreciated. A few may spar with you, but most will withdraw.
Your behaviour damages the confidence of others, especially those who report to you. When you repeatedly focus on what is wrong and what is missing, you demonstrate your lack of trust in their ability. In turn, others begin to doubt themselves and stop trusting in themselves to make good decisions. Over time, people abdicate their accountabilities to you, and they shut down and shut you out. No one is willing to be used for target practice, and you will lose the support of your group.
If your insensitivity extends to cultural differences, people will feel misunderstood and not respected, and your behaviour will lead to considerable antagonism. Because we act upon cultural influences instinctively, we are unaware of our most prevalent assumption: “Everyone is just like me.” This assumption causes leaders to respond to people in the same manner. Cultural insensitivity impacts people at the deepest level of their beliefs and core values. This is particularly treacherous. People are often unforgiving when you trample on their traditions and way of life.
When you do not listen, you cultivate an unsafe environment where people become resigned and do not speak up. People pretend to listen, but they hold back because they know they have no real voice
Blind Spot 3: Having an “I Know” Attitude
Leaders with an “I know” attitude have an answer for everything. Others perceive them as petty tyrants, solution machines, human bulldozers, and command and control autocrats. They leave others feeling exhausted, diminished, angry, and insignificant. They are high maintenance and a continual source of irritation.
An “I know” attitude is based on rigid and fixed views and the lack of intellectual curiosity. Leaders with this blind spot stifle innovation and change by constantly defending their beliefs and trying to prove they are right and everyone else is wrong. Their actions communicate, “I have all the answers and I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do.” For some, there is a sense of false bravado, overconfidence, and arrogance.
Symptoms of an “I Know” Attitude
• Not listening to others or diminishing what others have to say
• Making assumptions and judgments
• Acting as if you have all the answers
• Being rigid and inflexible in your viewpoints
• Refusing to explore alternative ideas and options
With the simplistic approach—I’m right and you’re wrong—leaders with an “I know” attitude diminish the desire for others to contribute, learn, and grow.
The Impact of Having an “I Know” Attitude. If you have an “I know” attitude, you are downright annoying to others, especially people who like to use their minds. Your attitude effectively shuts people down and displays a dangerous delusion: “There is only one reality and it is mine.” No one likes to be around someone who is unwilling to consider new possibilities or explore new ideas. Even if you say the words, “I’m open to new ideas,” your behaviour belies your message.
Your “I know” attitude frustrates people to such a high degree that most would prefer working with anyone but you. What your behaviour teaches people is they do not need to think. You have all the answers and solutions, so why should they use their energy to come up with new ideas that you will just shoot down.
You probably become annoyed when others do not bring new ideas and solutions. You may even complain that you are the only one doing all the thinking in your group. Yet you do not see how your behaviour teaches others to stop thinking; after all, you already have the answer.
An “I know” attitude does not inspire high performance in others. Chances are you do not delegate effectively. Your need to control and manage everything ends up leaving people feeling unnecessary and superfluous. You, in turn, have an excessive workload. By not empowering and delegating to others, you must then carry the burden of work.
This blind spot costs the business the collective intelligence of others.
Blind Spot 4: Avoiding Difficult Conversations
Avoiding difficult and sensitive conversations is an everyday occurrence for one simple reason: such conversations are uncomfortable. People fear they will open Pandora’s Box and be faced with their own embarrassment, a negative reaction from others, being labeled or judged, or the loss of a relationship. They sidestep difficult conversations because they do not feel confident in their ability to be emotionally honest and direct. Do you know how to tell a co-worker to stop gossiping, or how to tell your boss that he is demotivating the group?
Symptoms of Avoiding Difficult Conversations
• Withholding how you think and feel
• Softening the message and not communicating your real concern
• Making it difficult for others to talk with you about sensitive issues
• Staying on the surface of issues and not allowing the conversation to go deeper
• Avoiding discussions that could evoke an emotional response
If you cannot talk about it, you cannot resolve it. When leaders avoid tough conversations, problems remain unresolved. Poor performance continues, less than acceptable products and services are produced, and morale plummets. Being polite and not wanting to hurt another’s feelings are the common excuses used for not talking straight responsibly. When leaders soften the message, the other party walks away confused.
The Impact of Avoiding Difficult Conversations. If you avoid difficult conversations and are not direct with others, you are not doing anyone a favour. People are more troubled and disturbed when you do not talk straight than they are by the prospect of being hurt by what you have to say. How do you want others to communicate with you? Do you want people to beat around the bush and send an ambiguous and implied message, or do you want them to honestly tell you what is on their mind? If you chose the latter, then you need to apply the same rule to others and talk straight responsibly—with an emphasis on the word “responsibly.”
When you avoid tough conversations, you leave people with an uneasy and unsettled feeling. Because they never know where you stand, they are wary and stop trusting you. They deal with a constant state of misdirected attention and fixate on you, at the expense of business needs. Your behaviour is a primary contributor to high levels of underperformance.
Bottling things up, harbouring resentments, and not responsibly expressing your concerns and feelings sends a message. Just because you are not using words, you are still communicating with your behaviour. People interpret your actions and make up their own meaning. And you can expect people to make up the worst.
Blind Spot 5: Blaming Others or Circumstances
Pointing the finger at others is much easier than taking accountability. Leaders deflect, rotate the discussion, and focus the spotlight on what is wrong with someone else. Blame is often used as an offensive tactic to avoid defending one’s position. An easy way to escape being blamed is by attacking and blaming someone else.
Blame in an organization creates a volatile environment. Silos, warring groups, and factions choke off the emergence of collaboration and team-work. Valuable time is spent attempting to resolve conflict in the proverbial battle of “he said, she said.”
Symptoms of Blaming Others or Circumstances
• Always having a reason, excuse, or explanation (“Yeah, but . . .”)
• Pointing the finger at others or circumstances to avoid accountability
• Constantly criticizing and complaining about others
• Being adversarial and opposing ideas and people
• Having divided loyalties and priorities and not working as a team
The Impact of Blaming Others or Circumstances. Blaming others rubs people the wrong way, especially those who are responsible and accountable. It is perceived as petty and small and lacking integrity. If you are in a position of power, others will not verbally tell you how you impact them, but they demonstrate their loss of respect for you in their behaviour. When you are unwilling to take accountability and display strength of character, fairness, and honesty, people will not support you.
You run another risk with this blind spot. Blaming others divides people into two camps—your allies and your enemies. People know which camp they are in, and they either fight or comply. Even your allies may withhold trust fearing they could easily be next on your list. You are left without the willing cooperation required to achieve authentic and sustainable alignment. Others give lip service but do exactly what they want.
Your behaviour can polarize an entire organization and reinforce boundaries and divisions instead of collaboration and cooperation. While you may think you have the support of others, people know how to play the game, and they will blame you just as you blame them. They adopt an attitude of “this too shall pass” and wait for you to fail or move on.
Blind Spot 6: Treating Commitments Casually
Casual commitments and promises happen all too often and destroy the credibility of leaders. When leaders make throwaway promises with no intention of keeping them, they are not believable. One of the worst offenders that prevent organizations from staying on track and achieving objectives are words not tied to solid action and a firm deadline. They cloud even the clearest objective and send people in different directions.
For example, you are much better off stating a clear no than implying a possible yes. You disappoint people when you promise something— big or small—that you do not deliver. When your words are inconsistent with your behaviour, people believe what you do and dismiss your words. Little by little, your comments lose their power, and people discount what you say.
Symptoms of Treating Commitments Casually
• Not making and not keeping commitments
• Not fulfilling promises on time
• Always maintaining an “escape hatch” to avoid being held accountable
• Not providing a clear “I commit” or “I do not commit”
• Making informal promises without a clear intention to keep them
The Impact of Treating Commitments Casually. When people cannot trust your words, they judge you as unreliable. People notice when you break a promise. They notice everything from small promises such as “I’ll call you tomorrow” to big promises such as “You’ll have my report by Friday.” It does not matter if promises are big or small. They are tallied in one giant ledger against which you are judged.
The biggest challenge you face is that when the ledger is imbalanced with broken commitments, people distrust all your commitments. Without the honour of your word, others protect themselves from your undependable behaviour.
Your word matters; it is better to make fewer commitments and keep them than to make many commitments and break them.
Blind Spot 7: Conspiring Against Others
Conspiring against others runs rampant in most organizations via rumours, gossip, and water cooler conversations. People talk negatively about co-workers and diminish their credibility by casting doubt and suspicion and then attempt to get others to agree with them.
Sometimes these conspiracies are behind people’s backs, and other times they are open warfare. For example, a conspiracy against a person can be demonstrated in meetings by nonverbal behaviours. To discredit the speaker, others may ignore the presentation, work on their computers, check cell phone messages, or just check out and not listen. Any nonverbal demonstration of disinterest, disagreement, or disapproval, whether intentional or unintentional, is a conspiracy against others.
Silent conspirators are deadly conspirators. The most common form of conspiring is by saying nothing at all. When you listen to others but do not correct an erroneous assumption or do not take a stand for a person, you are sanctioning their comments. Underground conversations and conspiracies contaminate an entire organization. They build internal barriers to partnership and collaboration.
Symptoms of Conspiring Against Others
• Speaking negatively about people or their ideas
• Discrediting and discounting others
• Silently agreeing with a negative point of view by not speaking up
• Displaying nonverbal cues of disapproval or disinterest
• Not talking directly to the appropriate person
When groups conspire against each other, they cost the organization significant time and money. This was the case between the research and marketing groups in a specialty chemical organization. The relationship between these two areas for the past 20 years could be described as strained, at best.
The Impact of Conspiring Against Others. When you conspire against people or ideas—whether by participating or by silent endorsement—you are perceived as weak, deceitful, and dishonest. Others withdraw their trust, and your credibility takes a nosedive. The unasked question is, “If a leader talks negatively about someone else, what prevents him or her from talking about me?”
This blind spot is like breathing; it is invisible until we raise our level of awareness and focus our attention on it. You may not recognize how much you engage in conspiring against people and initiatives. Everyone does it, and it is easy to overlook. But if you add up every time you listened to a negative conversation about another person and said nothing, you will have a long list. Chances are you engaged in a conspiracy against a person or idea in the last 24 hours.
Blind Spot 8: Withholding Emotional Commitment
When we examine commitment, we must take into account two factors: intellectual and emotional engagement. The presence of intellectual commitment without emotional engagement results in compliance. But when an organization can capture both “hearts and minds”—emotional and intellectual commitment—people engage and focus their energy on implementing change.
Emotional commitment—being inspired and passionate—unleashes the discretionary effort of people. When economists use the term discretionary income, they refer to the portion of your income you can use after paying fixed and necessary expenses. Discretionary effort works in the same way. It is the portion of your effort and energy that you personally control and that cannot be mandated by the organization.
Symptoms of Withholding Emotional Commitment
• Complying and going along with the decision
• Resisting change and withholding support
• Withdrawing your passion and enthusiasm
• Not being moved by the passion and commitment of others
• Going through the motions—waiting to see if change is really going to happen
There are two manifestations of this blind spot. One is when leaders withhold their emotional commitment and do not authentically align. The second is when leaders think they have alignment from others, and all they have is intellectual commitment or compliance.
The Impact of Withholding Emotional Commitment. When you claim to be aligned or supportive but withhold your emotional commitment, others perceive you as disengaged and disingenuous. People know when you are not fully on board. They see it in how you behave and how you speak. How can you be emotionally honest with others if you are not emotionally honest with yourself? When you withhold your energy and enthusiasm, others do the same.
You gain respect when you tell people the truth, such as “I am not completely on board. I have reservations.” You must have the courage to tell the truth instead of covering up what you are really thinking.
Without full emotional and intellectual commitment, you will not be able to weather the storm and achieve the results you want. It is the strength of both emotional and intellectual commitment that allows you to effectively engage people in the face of challenging circumstances.
Blind Spot 9: Not Taking a Stand
Leaders who do not take a stand are indecisive, hold on to their views too long, and vacillate to the point that it drives everyone crazy. Teams spin in an endless cycle of no decision and no action, and eventually people give up. An indecisive leader cripples a group or organization by sapping the energy and drive of people.
Often, indecisive leaders make their case and ask others to respond. Then they think about the input and return to the team to revisit the same topic. The group, once again, walks through the tedious process of re-examining the same problem. This dreary and mind-numbing pattern frustrates people.
Vacillating on decisions is frequently based on the fear of not looking good by making a mistake or miscalculation. But the opposite is true. Not taking a stand or making a decision offers no immunity; people know what the leader is attempting to do.
Symptoms of Not Taking a Stand
• Decisions are not clear.
• Decisions are not made or take a long time.
• Decisions are often reversed.
• Meetings are unproductive and inefficient.
• Group members work around the leader and get decision-making authority from others.
The Impact of Not Taking a Stand. People lose confidence and their desire to contribute when you are indecisive and unwilling to take a stand. They feel disconnected to business goals and the actions needed to achieve them. When you waver, they fill in the blanks and either make decisions on their own, or “wait and see” what will happen. In either case, you have uncoordinated action and the lack of cohesion and alignment. Without your stand, forward motion comes to a halt, and critical actions are delayed.
When you do not take a stand, people hedge their bets. They feel ineffective and unable to do what is needed. Although you may be able to tolerate a high level of ambivalence, most people cannot. What others want from you are clarity and timely decisions that allow them to successfully execute their accountabilities.
Blind Spot 10: Tolerating “Good Enough”
Most leaders do not recognize when they are tolerating or settling for less. One reason this occurs is the natural tendency to focus on an individual area of interest or expertise. The upshot is the leaders unintentionally marginalize important areas and stamp them as “good enough.” The drawback is that leaders pour their efforts into initiatives of their choice and abdicate areas of less compelling interest to others. In accepting good as “good enough,” leaders inadvertently settle for the status quo or incremental reforms. This automatic drift results in the lack of exploration of new ideas and initiatives outside a leader’s comfort zone.
This explains why cultural transformation is widely misunderstood and why often the business value is discounted. It stands to reason that unless a leader has experience or competency in the science of human behaviour, this area appears to be a quagmire with no end in sight. For many leaders, this uncharted territory looks risky and disconnected from the organization’s strategic objectives. Tolerating “good enough” is an avoidance behaviour that keeps leaders safely pursuing familiar paths, even when they are ineffective.
Symptoms of Tolerating “Good Enough”
• Avoiding the discomfort of uncharted territory
• Not willing to investigate or explore needed changes outside of one’s comfort zone
• Sitting back and being content with things as they are
• Defending the status quo
• Accepting incremental improvement as “good enough”
The Impact of Tolerating “Good Enough.” Tolerating “Good Enough.” People are discouraged when leaders apply personal preference to leadership initiatives and ignore critical needs of the business or delegate them. When you are unwilling to learn and explore areas outside of your knowledge base, experience, and comfort, you not only limit yourself, you also limit the organization.
People want leaders who demand excellence and high standards of behaviour that are consistently applied. Your leadership is essential to chart a new course and to move the company to the next level of performance. If you give lip service to cultural transformation and behavioural standards, you sacrifice the unified support of people and lose the most powerful mechanism available for creating extraordinary teamwork and alignment. Nothing will accelerate your business targets as quickly and effectively as people who are passionately focused on giving you more than what you ask for.
When you tolerate “good enough” and fail to move outside your comfort zone, you hold people and the organization back