The Danger of Blind spots

(Or, What you Don’t Know Can Hurt You)

We often think of blind spots in the context of driving. There are parts of a car which block visibility – windscreen pillars, for example. We sometimes won’t be aware of objects (other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists) approaching our car because of those gaps in our vision. If we are not aware of these blind spots, the consequences can be dangerous or even tragic. But what about blind spots in a work context?

The kinds of blind spots that impact the most from a management perspective are not typically visual. They are far more likely to be cognitive.

Biases are a common source of blind spots. Everyone has biases, and they are not necessarily a negative – our brain, which is an expensive organ to run, uses heuristics or cognitive shortcuts to save energy. These preferences are a form of shorthand to get to a conclusion without engaging more costly thought processes. They are covered extensively in Daniel Kahnemann’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which is a great read.

One area where our biases can be problematic is in hiring. If we hire people who look, act and think like us, we will reduce the diversity of thought in our organisations, often to our detriment. The same challenge applies to the promotional process, where people who are not like us don’t get the same opportunities if our biases are leading us.

Another area where biases can impact is decision-making. While we need to careful to avoid “analysis paralysis”, or spend too much time in information-gathering, we do need to be aware of the limits of our knowledge. Assuming we know more than we do is a classic blind spot.

Probably the most difficult one to detect is how others perceive us – this is the equivalent of the wing-mirror or windscreen pillar blind spot. We can’t see what we can’t see – what we look like to others.

What can we do to address our blind spots, so we are avoiding catastrophe? We need to solicit input from others, continuously and openly. We need to create a culture where difficult feedback is encouraged. By acting with humility, acknowledging that we can’t know everything, and providing space for people to give us direct feedback, we become much better positioned to learn what we don’t know.

When hiring, use a panel approach. Allow the panel to vote by a majority, so that your biases are not driving a like-minded hiring approach. If there is a tie-breaker required, you still make the final decision, but with inputs from others. If you are voted against, you still own the responsibility for what happens with that hire.

360 feedback systems provide one approach to understand how we are perceived. If your company provides some variant of this tool, use it! Before selecting colleagues to provide input on your performance and behaviours, let them know in advance that the request will be coming. Don’t just send blanket requests to a wide array of staff who may or may not know you well enough to provide quality feedback. Solicit input from people who think differently to you, and from those with whom you may have difficult relationships, as well as from those who you consider “friendly”.

When making decisions, get inputs from everyone involved. Make it clear that no one person can or does have all the answers. Praise people for raising issues before they cause problems. Capture feedback visibly, and track how issues are being addressed.

Ultimately, a good portion of planning for blind spots is to ensure that we are open to feedback. If we assume we know something, we are probably going to be wrong (unless we know we have exhaustively researched that particular issue). By acting with humility and keeping an open mind, we can reduce the impact of things we cannot see.

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