Executive Blind Spots and How to Avoid Them

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. © 2008

Do you know anyone who can bat .1000? The best baseball players hit in the low to mid .300 range and we think that is terrific. Executives don't bat .1000 either when it comes to decision making. Unfortunately, many of their poor decisions are the results of blind spots in their thinking.

While giving a talk to a group of senior executives about executive blind spots, I was asked three basic questions:

  1. Why don't we recognize we're going in the wrong direction sooner and before it's too late?
  2. Why don't we make the necessary changes that we know we should?
  3. How can we think and act differently?

In this briefing I'll provide some answers to those questions and outline some steps to develop better judgment. These are steps to reduce blind spots, improve your critical thinking, and to avoid what is commonly known as "judgment traps."

Judgment traps are a psychological blindness because they have to do with how we think, feel and react to external events. It has very little to do with your smarts (intellectual capacity). In fact, it’s not the external event that’s the problem (although external events can be problematic). It’s our interpretations and the subsequent reactions based on our interpretations that foul us up. People react differently to the same events.

1. Why don't we recognize we're going in the wrong direction sooner and before it's too late?

There are six primary reasons why we don’t see we're going in the wrong direction before we crash. I’ve seen executives and executive teams succumb to all of these and I’ve worked with executives to help them change. So, the good news is that nothing we’re talking about is insurmountable if you face it head on and are willing to work hard to make the necessary changes.

The first reason is that most people don’t ask the question - What could we be doing differently? Most people wait until they are hit between the eyes. Asking that basic question and being willing to hear the answer requires some introspection and research. It’s extremely difficult to see oneself accurately. It usually requires an assessment from an impartial, trained observer using valid methods, asking the right questions and then making sense of the data. The impartial observer is critical because that person isn’t caught up in the collective delusions of the five poor judgment pitfalls which follow:

Group think - This is the tendency for groups to circle around themselves and get stuck in thinking one way - the group’s way. This happens without regard to the actual effectiveness of the team/group. As a result, effective teams can fall into this trap out of arrogance (see below) while ineffective teams just can’t see beyond their noses. The problem is that either group will reject ideas that are countervailing simply because the ideas create psychological dissonance. New ideas are felt as threatening. It “feels” better to continue thinking and doing the old way - so the group continues in the same rut.

Weak premises - The premises for making judgments/decisions are based on weak theories or data. Some ideas have good “face validity,” meaning that they sound good but the data really doesn’t support the theory. For example, executives frequently rate extraverted job candidates as being more competent than introverts. Not necessarily so, however. It depends on the job requirements.

Seeing what you want to see - If we have a lot at stake and have invested both time and money into something, there frequently is so much momentum behind the idea/project/process that we don’t want to be sidetracked by seeing something that might derail our train.

Overconfidence or arrogance - This issue is probably the most difficult to overcome because it usually only happens to successful people and companies. Unfortunately, successful people get full of themselves and believe in their own invincibility. They get lazy about critical thinking. A recent example is Eliot Spitzer. One of the most common comments I heard about his sordid situation was, “What was he thinking?”

Prior commitments - We get caught up in what we’ve committed to and don’t want to change tack. Microsoft has spent billions building and rebuilding Windows and now the Vista operating system. Of course they aren’t going to abandon it and develop a brand new one that might be more efficient.

2. Why don’t we make the necessary changes fast enough that we know we should?

I don’t want to sound simplistic but the main reason that executives don’t change fast enough is that it’s too easy to keep doing what they've been doing. It takes hard work and commitment to change behavior. In addition, it usually requires some willingness to admit that there might be a better way. Unfortunately, all too frequently, executives think that acknowledging that there might be a better way to do something is a sign of weakness or incompetence. Let’s dispel that notion right now by remembering that people (most frequently top athletes) like Tiger Woods daily ask for feedback and coaching. Why? He wants to be able to play at the top of his/her game.

My brother-in-law who was a professional football player (Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay) said that after every game they reviewed the “game tapes” over and over to look at what they did well and where they “screwed up.” He said, “We were constantly trying to figure out how to play better.”

The way that executives and executive teams look at their game tapes is through the use of assessment processes such as an executive team effectiveness survey or 360 degree/multi-rater surveys or organizational performance surveys that are benchmarked with other individuals and organizations and based on criteria that scientifically correlates with high-performance.

3. How can we react differently?

The answer to that question requires what I would call a “commitment to self-reflection and awareness.” This has to start at the top. Senior executives have to model the behavior and set up systems that support self-reflection.

For example, executive meetings should not just be “data dumps” to report on where “we are.” Some of those meetings should be a place were people specifically scrutinize ideas, ask for input, brainstorm - all the ingredients for accessing the collective wisdom of highly intelligent people. Yes, those meetings are often messy and challenging but that's what it takes to generate creative ideas. Also, senior executive have to reign in their impulse to chime in their opinions too quickly, which often are received by subordinates as orders rather than suggestions.

Another method is to make sure that there is someone who will play the "devil’s advocate” role for the group. I’ve noticed a tendency in Seattle for people to be “too nice” and stifle their dissenting opinions so that they do not rock the boat or appear as a “problem child.” Then they passive aggressively stonewall any decisions that come out of those meetings to which they disagree. Executives need to learn how to be "respectfully confrontational.” That means to debate the ideas and not attack the idea maker with statements like, “How dumb can you be.” I’ve actually heard that comment made by an executive in a meeting! However, I’d rather deal with someone who is overtly aggressive anytime than that passive aggressive executive who attacks behind your back. At least you know what you’re fighting against with someone who is overtly aggressive.

Lastly, senior executives need to regularly ask for an unbiased, third party assessment of their performance specifically looking at how they foster idea generation and creativity in their organization. If you are a CEO or senior officer of a company and have not been through a 360 degree/multi-rater assessment process, you are missing out on one of the most powerful methods used by virtually every Fortune 100 company to fine tune and accelerate executive effectiveness.

We all need to review our game tapes on a regular basis, but it’s not for the faint of heart. However, if you want to play like the professionals (NFL athletes, etc.) do - that’s what it takes. Since I’ve been using pro football as an example, I’ll conclude by quoting Vince Lombardi, the late great Green Bay Packer's coach: "Leaders are made, not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve anything worthwhile."

I want to credit Jagdish Sheth, Ph.D., for a few of the answers to question number one.