A couple years ago my oldest son received his driver’s permit. He wasn’t a big fan of driving. He thought it was awkward and overly stressful. One day my oldest son was driving, I was riding shotgun, and my middle son was sitting in the back.

We went to merge onto the highway and my son neglected to look back at his blind spot. I took a peek and saw a big, 18-wheeler barreling down the highway in the lane my son was about to enter. We were about to hit the front end of the truck and become its latest hood ornament! In fact, my middle son, sitting in the back was going to bear the brunt of it!

I yelled for my son to slow down and stay to the right. Flustered, he followed my directions and we then merged safely after the truck passed us. I asked him why he didn’t look at his blind spot and he said he was never taught that in driver’s ed. I was floored!

Every organization has blind spots because they are led by leaders who have blind spots. We all have them, and no one is immune. Defined, a blind spot is an area that you are not able to see either due to its location or to some physical obstruction.

Organizational blind spots are common, and they happen in the most natural ways. Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios talks at length about this reality in his book, Creativity Inc. He cites three levels of blind spots and mysteriously refers to them as “the hidden”.

Level One

People bring the best versions of themselves when they interact with their bosses and save their lesser moments for their peers, spouses, or therapists. Catmull says, “Unfortunately most leaders aren’t aware of it when it’s happening. They either forget or don’t even realize that when they get promoted to a leadership position, no one will ever actually say, ‘Now that you are a manager, I can no longer be as open and brutally honest with you.’ Instead, many new leaders assume, wrongly, that their access to information is unchanged.” When information is lacking, you must train yourself to believe that blind spots are present and growing.

When information is lacking, you must train yourself to believe that blind spots are present and growing.

Level Two

Some people choose to tell the boss only what they want to hear instead of what needs to be said. When this happens, it’s impossible for the leader to get a clear picture of reality. What makes it even harder is that by telling the leader what they want to hear, they end up endearing themselves to that leader. Who doesn’t like that? Catmull says, “When viewed from a single vantage point, a full picture of the dynamics of any group is elusive. While we are all aware of these kinds of behaviors because we see them in others, most of us do not realize that we distort our own view of the world, largely because we think we see more than we actually do.”

Level Three

The people doing the day-to-day work in the trenches deal with complex processes that are accompanied with their own challenges, and specific nuance. The leader is typically capable of understanding those issues if they are brought to them and explained. But the people who are directly involved have the clearest understanding of the issues because they are in the middle of the action. If a disaster is looming, they will know about it before the leader does. The bigger problem is that folks typically don’t bring those problems up to the leadership right away. Even employees with the best track records can be too tentative to speak up when they sense trouble. They could feel it’s too early to involve upper leadership, or they might assume that management is already aware. Catmull makes an outstanding point, “Complex environments are, by definition, too complicated for any one person to grasp fully. Yet many managers, afraid of appearing to not be in control, believe that they have to know everything – or at least act like they do.”

Next Steps

What do you do with these bind spots and how do you manage them? Here are three easy things you can do right now to make significant progress:

  1. Embrace Different Viewpoints – We want to tell ourselves that we can figure out and uncover anything if we try hard enough. That’s just not true. As Catmull says, “If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.”

 

  1. Refuse to be Blinded by Success– Success persuades us to believe that we are doing everything right. Refuse to believe your own press and build deeper relationships across the organization. When you do, it’ll be easier to dig deeper into the three levels because you will have established trust with those that live in them.

 

  1. Create Feedback Loops – Organizations that do well with this create regular rhythms where employees that are known for telling the truth vs. saying what’s convenient sit down with upper management to give critical feedback. Title is not a ticket to get into the boardroom. Instead, a consistent history of sound, candid feedback along with innovative solution design establishes the value the leadership needs to avoid imminent disaster.
If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse. @edcatmull

Look into the three levels and start using some of these techniques to start reducing what’s hidden and you’ll find that you’ll learn more than you ever thought possible about your organization!

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