A few years ago, Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about “unknown unknowns.” His quote was in response to a question about the Iraq war. Although viewed positively today, his words initially provoked a number of laughs and some ridicule. At the time, I was a project manager and I didn’t think there was anything funny about his statement. I thought he was describing an excellent framework for risk management. Today, as a leader, I realize Rumsfeld was actually talking about leadership blind spots.
Why Do Leaders Have Blind Spots?
Over the course of my career, I’ve learned many things that helped me grow as a professional. I attended countless technical training and project management classes following college and many leadership programs as my career progressed. I’ve read many management books, interviewed leaders and volunteered for challenging developmental detail opportunities. While all of these activities paid dividends, they didn’t prevent me from developing leadership blind spots.
Many leaders are easily bogged down in the problems their organization is trying to solve. When there’s an IT failure, the CIO should not be the one leading the technical team to a resolution. However, this is too often the case. The narrow problem-solving focus creates a tunnel vision and groupthink around the leader’s perspective, resulting in bad decisions and inaccurate conclusions.
The reality is that self-awareness and emotional intelligence scores decline as you rise in an organization. The pressures and politics of senior leadership positions make it easy to fall out of touch with staff. This disconnection results in information being filtered on the way to the leader. The ground truth never sees the inside of the leader’s inbox.
Unfortunately, the small staff close to the leader oftentimes only shares information that fits the established narrative. The messiness that exists on every project and in every organization becomes an “unknown unknown” to the leader, even though it’s a “known known” to those on the front lines.
Leadership Blind Spots and Biases
Another way to think about a leadership blind spot is as an unconscious bias.
Our brains are wired to take shortcuts. We simply are unable to process all of the information available to us. As a result, we rely heavily on experiences and make assumptions. This can lead to stereotyping and snap judgments about who should run a project or receive a promotion.
Other times, we can be guilty of a confirmation bias, where we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and ignore information that does not. This can present itself as a halo effect, where the leader focuses on the positive results of an employee they happen to like while ignoring the employee’s shortcomings. There’s also the idea of a horns effect, where an employee is viewed negatively, no matter their performance.
These biases add to our leadership blind spots and are anathema to innovation. Further, a Harvard Business Review study found that a lack of self-awareness amongst team members negatively affected their decision quality, coordination and conflict management.
Avoiding Blind Spots
How do you add a second mirror to make your leadership blind spots visible? Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. It takes hard work.
I suggest starting with the following ideas.
- Slow down and try to lead with a wise mind. Blind spots always exist, but when we are moving too fast, the risk that they will trip you up grows considerably. Sometimes, we have to “go slow to go fast.”
- You may be the leader or the most experienced member of the team. However, be open to the idea that you don’t have all the information or know the best approach for solving a problem. Be sure to consider all the evidence presented to you.
- Perform a project pre-mortem. You may have heard of a project post-mortem, an effort to look back and understand why your project didn’t succeed. Instead of waiting for the failure, strategically pause your work and imagine that your project does not succeed. Ask the team to list out all of the reasons why. You now have a number of potential leadership blind spots to consider.
- Sometimes, the only way to get critical feedback is to make people feel safe and then ask for it. By acknowledging other people’s feelings, you validate them and spur them to share what they are thinking. If you listen with an open, wise mind, you may be enlightened and your leadership blind spot brightened.
Remember, we all have blind spots. If someone tells you they don’t, they just proved to you that they do.
Having a blind spot or bias is not a cause for shame. However, learning you have one and ignoring it, is.
The best leaders acknowledge this and open their eyes for opportunities to increase their self-awareness. With this mindset comes an opportunity to expand your field of vision and gain insight into your leadership blind spots and how they impact the world around you.
You might also be interested in Can Introverts Be Leaders? It’s About Self-Awareness and Humility as a Path to Wisdom.
Jonathan Alboum is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.