In last week’s blog post we explored the two primary types of thinking leaders employ, when we typically engage in each type, as well as the pros and cons of each mode of thinking. According to Dr. Bazerman, The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, leaders often put themselves into intuitive-thinking mode, which can cause leaders to miss critical pieces of information. This week we’ll be looking at one of the most common ways leaders fail to use information efficiently.
Missing What’s in Front of You
Bombarded with more information than they can effectively process, leaders can miss things that are “hidden in plain sight”. Information overload causes important facts to be overlooked. Leaders commonly bemoan how something so obvious wasn’t caught. In the fallout, outsiders critique these oversights and question leaders’ abilities.
During the mortgage lending frenzy of the mid-2000s, for example, financial institutions and regulatory agencies were drowning in their efforts to track interest rates, loan traffic, the housing boom and profits. Lost in this ocean was the higher percentage of risky loans being made to fuel the euphoria. Telltale data were completely available, revealing the risk of loan defaults. No one thought to investigate this critical aspect of the lending environment.
Dr. Bazerman and a New York University colleague coined the term “bounded awareness” to describe how we consistently miss readily available stimuli. Our desired goal becomes our overwhelming mission, despite realities that can upend the best-laid plans. When leaders are so caught up in one situational aspect, they fail to observe another, leading to dire problems. Think of the manufacturer who’s so obsessed with delivery deadlines that he overlooks reports of quality problems.
Leaders can overcome bounded awareness by broadening their perspectives and thinking beyond their typical frame of reference. Careful consideration of issues always trumps a cursory glance. Bringing in a more diverse, cross-functional team is paramount. Leaders make better decisions when their teams answer critical questions:
- What type of information is appropriate, and which should be discarded?
- Do we have all the data we need?
- If not, where do we access more information?
- How accurate are the data we have?
- Have we examined all the issues at play?
- Is there anything we haven’t considered?
If leaders have a vested self-interest, they may skew information to support their emotional position. Such motivated blindness alters reality to make us see what we want to see (and miss the details we’d rather ignore). A retail-chain founder may believe in his brand and company legacy so passionately that he fails to notice its outdated sales approach, which is turning customers toward more progressive competitors.
To preserve self-esteem, a leader may have a self-serving bias, which causes a false sense of reality. The status quo seems rosy, and problems go unnoticed. These leaders often wonder why those around them seem troubled and continuously point out problems.
Leaders can counteract a self-serving bias by seeking guidance from a trusted colleague, mentor, or professional coach. Work on seeing things from others’ perspectives to broaden your views and ensure decisions benefit others first (i.e., how can I best help my people?).
Leaders with too narrow a focus limit their observations to major issues and ignore the minor, yet nonetheless important, ones. Equally problematic is a preoccupation with one specific matter that pulls focus from the big picture. This inattentional blindness often plagues leaders and is caused by distractedness.
Leaders can defeat inattentional blindness if they learn to step back from a situation and deliberately examine secondary and tertiary issues. Know that the most effective solutions are achievable only when problems are attacked holistically, not as a series of disconnected parts.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you struggle with missing key information that is readily available to you, if only you were to truly look? I can help you overcome these limitations through our leadership development and coaching programs.