Preventing blindspots from undermining effective leadership requires discipline and guts.
Let me start by saying that having emotional and behavioural blindspots are not the monopoly of executives. That said, the impact of senior most executives exhibiting blindspots on an organization can be pervasive and destructive not only to the individual manifesting those blindspots, but to their executive team and the broader organization.
How often have I heard executives state:
“Why don’t they understand the strategy” (because you’ve only explained it to them once and they need time to consider and ask questions)
“Why don’t they act like owners” (because you micromanage them and don’t ask for their input) “Why do they resist change” (because you haven’t figured in what’s in it for them)
“Why don’t they trust me” (because you move so fast and it appears as though you are in it only for yourself)
“Why don’t they challenge me” (because when they do you either dismiss what they say or speak sarcastically)
“Why are the engagement scores so low” (because you’ve decided to pay in the middle of the pack, or lower, and you actually think it’s a privilege to work for you)
“Why don’t they ask for my input” (because you are always asking about the numbers, not the technical challenges being faced)
“Why are they so nervous around me” (because they don’t know you and you don’t know them”) Look, this list can go on indefinitely and have numerous other “becauses”.
The essential point, however, is that when an executive asks these types of questions about “them”, I frequently start by asking what could they personally do differently in order to effect a different outcome or how might they have contributed to the issue which they are so frustrated by. By definition, we are blind to our blindspots. That’s why it’s so important to proactively seek to discover them. Preventing blindspots from undermining effective leadership requires discipline and guts.
By far the most important strategy to recognizing one’s blindspots is to ask for feedback and genuinely listen. It doesn’t matter whether you can think of instances where a particular feedback has not been true; whether always true or not you have likely exhibited or failed to exhibit a particular behaviour enough times that it “always” seems true to others and indeed others come to expect it.
Once you have accepted the possibility of the truth in a particular piece of feedback, the first step is to publicly acknowledge receipt of the feedback and openly commit to working on it in a disciplined fashion. This also means that you have to ask people, from time-to-time, whether they have observed a desired change. Course corrections are always necessary when implementing a behaviour change. Ironically, doing so is taken as a sign of strength, not weakness.
Another strategy is to recognize that we are frequently guilty of exhibiting the same behaviour in a variety of venues, not only the workplace. How often have you heard the expression that you can judge someone’s character by their behaviour on the golf course; or, as one spouse of an executive I was working with told my man, “and you’re paying him WHAT for something I’ve been telling you for nothing for years?”.
Essentially, once you are committed to a particular behaviour change, keep in mind the possibility that you can practice such changes not only at work, but at home, in community work, etc. Yes, we often function differently in different venues or with different people; chances are, however, that you are behaving more frequently the same than differently.
What’s in it for you? Well, first and foremost it is somewhat narcissistic to believe that you can change “their behaviour”. Yes, you can control conditions which might produce the outcome you desire (salary, promotions, transfers, threats, bonuses, culture change programs, team building events, etc.).
But underneath, whether the person, team or organization acquiesces, the behaviour may well be disingenuous and temporary if it is unaccompanied by a change in your own style or behaviour. Indeed, it may actually cause resentment and passive-aggressive (end run) behaviour.
So what’s in it for you is that as you make adjustments you have altered the conditions which reinforce existing behaviours. You are seen as more approachable, a better listener, sincere, inspiring, a role model for effective leadership, results and people-oriented, a developer of people, a change leader, consistent and respected. Not bad for simply asking for feedback and asking others to hold you accountable. Let me conclude with a fable, which the majority of you have either read or heard of. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a Danish fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in 1837, as part of Eventyr, Fortalte for Born (Fairy Tales, Told for Children). It was originally known as Keiserens Nye Klæder. Many years ago there lived an emperor who cared only about his clothes and about showing them off.
One day he heard from two swindlers that they could make the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they said, also had the special capability that it was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position. Being a bit nervous about whether he himself would be able to see the cloth, the emperor first sent two of his trusted men to see it. Of course, neither would admit that they could not see the cloth and so praised it. All the townspeople had also heard of the cloth and were interested to learn how stupid their neighbours were.
The emperor then allowed himself to be dressed in the clothes for a procession through town, never admitting that he was too unfit and stupid to see what he was wearing. He was afraid that the other people would think that he was stupid.
Of course, all the townspeople wildly praised the magnificent clothes of the emperor, afraid to admit that they could not see them, until a small child said: “But he has nothing on”!
This was whispered from person to person until everyone in the crowd was shouting that the emperor had nothing on. The emperor heard it and felt that they were correct, but held his head high and finished the procession.
Gerald (Gerry) Pulvermacher, Ph.D., C. Psych. has practiced applied psychology, first as a clinician and since 1978 as an industrial/organizational psychologist both in Canada and the United States. Gerry has held such positions as Partner and Global Practice Director for several services lines at Deloitte Consulting, Canadian President of the global consultancy Oliver Wyman Delta, Managing Partner of PSS (Pulvermacher, Stevens & Shack) and co-Founder of PulvermacherFirth (acquired by the Hudson Highland Group, a division of Monster.com). Having decided to leave the corporate world in 2009, Gerry has been enjoying private practice and he and his associates have been focusing on engagements which involve strategic planning and implementation, business transformation and change leadership, succession planning and governance, and executive and executive team development.