Often faced with chaos and difficult decisions, leaders tend to focus on what’s in front of them. Elva Ainsworth explores the value of deploying a ‘rear-view’ mirror to see where they might be missing something.
When we drive, we obviously need to look at where we are going. We need mirrors to see behind us and then we still need to turn our heads to see what is in our blind spot.
The principle is the same for business leaders. You will generally be looking at what is in front of you – the staff, the business, the problems and the inbox.
You may occasionally get some feedback on stuff you have missed but even so, you still need to actively turn and look from time to time to check how you are doing. So how can we keep an eye on the blind spots in order to drive safely and lead responsibly?
There is a blind spot where the optic nerve enters the retina. This spot is insensitive to light so nothing can be seen at this particular point.
The interesting thing is that our brain fills in the gap automatically. So in our vision we have a blind spot all the time but it appears that we don’t.
It is only when we really need an all-round view that this missing spot becomes critical. By 1978, for instance, it was clear that safe driving required help and it became mandatory for a car to have two wing mirrors.
Leaders’ blind spots can often be seen as the cause of many business issues.
The leadership blind spot is the specific area of style, personality, energy or behaviour which is currently “unseen” – where there is a persistent lack of insight or awareness.
As with vision, the unseen is not necessarily obvious as it feels like we know how things are going pretty well most of the time.
We prefer the comfortable state of knowing but improvements and opportunities for learning only come from taking a peek into the leadership mirror to see what is not obvious – to explore your impact, to check you are leading as you intend and landing with people as you would wish.
Some of the blind spots that typically come with leadership and seniority are:
Causing fear and anxiety: Others may be more afraid of you than you realise. You may consider yourself warm and approachable but your title or your seniority (or other characteristics) may deter some people from speaking their mind.
If you suspect this may be true for you then go out of your way to invite people to speak with you by sharing yourself and reassuring them of your commitment to them.
Failing to listen: Most of us fail to fully hear what others are saying to us a lot of the time. If you think you are a good listener, the chances are that you aren’t.
Showing people you listen better than you used to can be tricky. You might need to question more carefully, pay more attention to what people say (and what they don’t say), notice the nuances and emotions and to comment with interest and curiosity on these observations.
Impressive gravitas: You may not realise how impressive you are to others these days. You may be at the top of your game without realising it which might mean you try too hard with consequences on your wellbeing and a limiting effect on your empowerment of others as leaders.
Check out your status with a range of sources and really look if you can take in and own the positive acknowledgement. Then turn your attention to sharing your expertise and to empowering others around you.
Unresolved conflicts: There may be unresolved issues, disappointments and grievances. You may not be fulfilling others’ expectations of you and these frustrations may not have been expressed.
The first step in resolving issues is to bring consciousness of the conflict to the relevant parties and to openly explore the impact of the conflict on you, on others and on the business.
No single approach will give you the whole view but making the enquiry will give you a broader perspective.
Disrespecting others: It is easy to ignore those you do not fully respect. If you do not respect others, this is likely to show up through your listening and interactions and can start a vicious circle of people not speaking up, so not being heard and not asked.
Remind yourself what you respect and value in others and look for opportunities to demonstrate this value and appreciation visibly and expressly alongside some sort of apology for excluding them.
Intentions misunderstood: Your motives may be focused on the business, but others may assume you have personal ambitions.
Be honest and clear about what you are aiming to achieve. If you pick up distrust or misunderstanding, then speak openly about it to correct this.
Explore your impact
One or more of these situations may well apply to you. In order to check your blind spots, you need to explore your impact.
This can be via simple conversation with key individuals in a position to judge, looking at employee survey data or using a tool such as 360 feedback.
Alternatively, by asking someone to carefully observe and give you feedback or by referring to a mentor or coach, you can learn more about your potential impact. No single approach will give you the whole view but making the enquiry will give you a broader perspective.
In essence, it is safer to look behind even if it is scary – you never quite know what you are going to see, whether you will like it or whether you will miss something in front of you while you are looking. Be brave, bold and humble and you will learn more about yourself.