Do you know anyone who can bat 1.000? The best baseball players hit in the low to mid .300 range and we think that is terrific. Executives don’t bat 1.000 when it comes to decision making — nobody is perfect. However, executives’ “batting average” may be lower if they’re making decisions without addressing potential blind spots.
What are executive blind spots?
Executive “blind spots” are areas or situations where an executive may be out of touch or unaware. They’re also the personal weaknesses that executives inherently bring to the table, which affect how we react and decide.
While giving a talk to a group of senior executives about executive blind spots, I was asked three basic questions:
- Why don’t we recognize we’re going in the wrong direction before it’s too late?
- Why don’t we make the necessary changes when we know we should?
- How can we think and act differently?
To help other executives reduce blind spots, improve critical thinking, and avoid what is commonly known as “judgment traps,” (our interpretations and reactions to events) there are some steps that can be taken.
Recognizing our missteps
The first reason executives head in the wrong direction is that they don’t ask the question: “What could we be doing differently?” 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 poor judgment pitfalls. According to Jagdish Sheth, Ph.D., from Emory’s Goizueta Business School, there are five of these pitfalls:
- Group think. This is the tendency for groups to circle around themselves and get stuck in thinking one way. This happens without regard to the actual effectiveness of the team/group; effective teams can fall into this trap while ineffective teams just can’t see beyond their noses. These groups will reject new ideas 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. In poorly performing executive groups, premises for making judgments/decisions are based on weak theories or data. Some ideas have good “face value,” but the data really doesn’t support the theory. For example, executives frequently rate extraverted job candidates as being more competent than introverts, but this isn’t always true.
- Cognitive bias. If we have a lot at stake and have invested both time and money, there is often so much momentum behind the idea/project/process that we don’t want to be sidetracked by new information. Executives who don’t allow outside views to change the course of their decisions may find themselves in a sticky situation.
- Overconfidence or arrogance. Unfortunately, some successful people develop a sense of invincibility. Because of their “luck,” they get lazy about critical thinking and begin to make decisions that are guided by arrogance rather than data.
- Prior commitments. We get caught up in what we’ve committed to and don’t want to change tack. For example, Microsoft has spent billions building and rebuilding Windows and now the Vista operating system. Because of their prior commitment, they aren’t going to abandon Windows or Vista, even if they could produce something better.
Making changes and improvements
The main reason executives don’t change fast enough is simple: 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 this is a sign of weakness or incompetence. Let’s dispel that notion right now by remembering that top performers ask for feedback and coaching.
Executives and executive teams can improve performance and dispel blind spots by using assessment processes, such as an executive team effectiveness survey, 360 degree/multi-rater surveys or organizational performance survey. These assessments are benchmarked with other individuals and organizations and based on criteria that scientifically correlates with high performance. Being open to this sort of feedback allows you to see where you’re off-course and the steps you can take to get back on track.
Dealing with decision-making processes
When executives ask me, “How can I think and act differently?,” the answer requires 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” and reporting. Instead, 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. Also, senior executives 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. Also, executives need to learn how to be “respectfully confrontational.” That means to debate the ideas and not attack the idea maker with statements, but rather ask questions to flesh out ideas more. 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.
Constantly learning and improving
Vince Lombardi, the late great Green Bay Packers’ coach, once said: “Leaders are made, not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve anything worthwhile.” If you’re an executive looking to remove the blind spots that affect your decision-making and reactions, it’s time to clearly and objectively assess yourself.