Is your blindspot showing?

The blaring horn startled me back into my own lane. “What just happened?” I asked my dad during one of my first driving lessons. “I thought I did everything right. I put on my signal, I checked my mirrors. I didn’t see anyone!”

“What happened,” he explained “is your blindspot.”

Back then (no, I’m not going to tell you how long ago), cars didn’t have camera assists and vibrating steering wheels to keep you from potentially cutting off another motorist. Cars had blindspots, and you had to learn how to navigate around them. 

Well, cars aren’t the only ones with blindspots. It seems we all have them. Blindspots have been defined by Robert Bruce Shaw in his book Leadership Blindspots as an “unrecognized weakness or threat that has the potential to undermine a leader’s success.”

Blindspots are areas where we lack awareness of a weakness that is obvious to those around us. John Maxwell says blindspots are those parts of our lives where we do not see ourselves or our situation realistically. In a study titled “Finding the First Rung,” leadership coaching consultancy DDI found 89% of leaders have at least one blindspot in their leadership skills.

Where do blindspots come from? Shaw identifies several root causes, which include:

  • Experience Gaps. It’s hard to understand something that falls outside your experience.
  • Information Overload. In an attempt to compensate for being overwhelmed by information, some of us oversimplify.
  • Emotional Bias. If you have an emotional investment in something, you might slant the facts in the direction that best suits you.
  • Cognitive Dissonance. You try to hold two views that conflict.
  • Misaligned Incentives. Being rewarded and rewarding others for behaviors that conflict with the common good.
  • Hierarchical Distortions. The higher up in the organization you are, the more filtered the information you receive is.
  • Overconfidence. You assume your decision-making process is superior.

Some of the most common blindspots we have are those about ourselves. You may overestimate your strategic capability, value being right over being effective, or fail to balance the “what” with the “how.” We often fail to see the impact we have on others, or we may even think the rules don’t apply to us.

But you can also have blindspots when it comes to your team. Leaders with team blindspots don’t accurately evaluate the capabilities and motivations of the team. They don’t accurately see team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Because of unrealistic assumptions about the team members’ competencies, they may overburden them with too many projects rather than focusing on two or three key initiatives. Some leaders organize their team structure in a way that works best for their own self-interest but that might not be the most effective model for the team. Some trust the wrong individuals and avoid having tough conversations. A glaring team blindspot is not developing a successor.

Blindspots regarding the market include treating opinion as fact, misreading the political landscape, underestimating the competition and being overly optimistic. Leaders afflicted with market blindspots can’t judge the trends and threats or conceive of future changes. They assume their core business will remain viable despite shifts in the market.

I know, I know. You are reading this and saying that’s not me—which is exactly what you would say if you had a blindspot. (Remember that car in the other lane!)

So how do you know if this is something you need to address? Since you can’t fix a problem that you don’t know about, the first step in overcoming blindspots is diagnosing them. Shaw recommends two methods:

  1. Look for recurring weaknesses. The best way to do this is to look at your past mistakes. Ask yourself what the most significant mistakes you have made are and what caused them. Are there patterns? Do the patterns suggest a recurring blindspot?
  2. Solicit feedback from those who know you well. Ask your colleagues to evaluate your potential lack of awareness regarding your staff, company and markets. An excellent way to do this is with a 360-degree feedback tool. There are several excellent tools on the market. One of my favorites is The Leadership Practices Inventory. There are also the Reiss Motivation Profile and a quick online assessment at whatsmyblindspot.com. Alternatively, there is a quick paper-and-pencil assessment in the back of Leadership Blindspots

You also might find these five techniques helpful with increasing your control and awareness of your blindspots:

  • Get out of the office, broaden your contacts, and spend more time with customers and employees.
  • Become a devil’s advocate. Seek out things that challenge what you believe.
  • Develop peripheral vision. Learn to read subtle cues from your team. Ask probing questions. Seek contrarian views.
  • Build a network of trusted advisors and truly consider their opinions.
  • Promote productive team fights and encourage people to challenge you.

Of course, you can always choose to remain blind to your blindspots. But I will caution you: that could put you on a collision course.