Imagine being on the baseline of a tennis court and looking over at your opponent’s side of the court. You can see everything on your side as well as the other side of the net, right?If you’re taller than 5′ 6”, you can easily see the far baseline, then, depending on your height and exactly where you are standing, you can see much of the far court between the service line and the baseline. As you look in the service area of your opponent’s court, you’ll notice that your vision is blocked by the net. The white vinyl part of the net called the headband runs along the top of the net is entirely opaque, and that creates a blind spot. You simply cannot see what goes on when the headband is between your eyes and something you want to see on the other side of the court, like where your kick serve actually hit the line.
In a car, there is a gap in your visual field between what your side mirror shows and what you’d see with a quick glance to your left, which is why we’re taught to turn our head farther back before changing lanes or making a left turn.
In business, we all have blind spots, too. Often, because they are conceptual, they are invisible, and therefore even harder to detect than a 130 MPH flat serve that kisses the center line of a hard court. As I work with entrepreneurs and executives to improve their leadership skills, we talk about both relational blind spots and technical blind spots.
Here are three examples of relational blind spots:
- One VP I coached was oblivious that he called on his golf buddies before others in staff meetings (and more than a tad defensive when I pointed it out).
- A successful nutrition consultant who made a lot of presentations wondered why she was having difficulty convincing people to take action on her recommendations. Due in part to her extensive knowledge and experience, her tone had become authoritative in an off-putting way, and thus less effective to her goals.
- Another executive who was more talented than well-liked in his organization (and therefore had weak loyalty and high defections) failed to acknowledge simple hellos and waves as he walked to his office in the morning because he was in conversation or zeroed in on his smartphone screen.
Technical blind spots are easier to identify and alter: one version is judging new things by an outdated standard (e.g., “Why would anyone want a phone where you can’t feel the keys?”), another is favoring a discipline you are familiar with or interested in at the expense of criteria that your bosses/customers will be using to evaluate satisfaction (e.g. “Hey, we put on another terrific sales conference, didn’t we — what, how did we go over budget by that much!?”), and a third is focusing at the wrong depth, often on trivial details (e.g. “This health report is going to impact WHO policy and save thousands of lives through more efficacious disease management protocols, but I’d hate to send it out until we match the format of the footer we used 2 years ago.”).
Blind spots need to be recognized and acknowledged before they can be overcome. We can’t develop x-ray vision, but we can learn to neutralize and change habits that lead to conflict, poor communications, and distorted perspective. The people who follow us deserve better leadership over time, and that’s why the best leaders are not just open to learning, but are eager to learn new tools, new ideas, and new perspectives that can help improve their effectiveness and minimize their blind spots.
Your Steps on the Growth Path:
- Look at your surroundings and identify three things you cannot see because of how the furniture is arranged. Maybe it’s the floor in front of you because your desk blocks the view. Maybe it’s to the left of the office door because of a wall. You cannot see what’s behind you because your eyes are human eyes, not frog eyes, and only cover a range of 180 degrees at the most. It’s important to acknowledge blind spots in your physical surroundings, because they are undeniable and doing so primes your brain for heightened awareness.
- Make a list of three types of news you really hate to receive. One of my clients who loved giving his team the latest tools and high tech gadgets had a blind spot in hearing negative feedback clearly, even when his “advocacy” went overboard and created unintended overwhelm.
- Get valuable feedback one conversation at a time. As part of a 1:1 meeting (not in a larger meeting!), ask a trusted colleague if there is one blind spot area that she or he has noticed in you. When I have this conversation as part of a Leadership 360 review, I gather examples to clarify the observation, and this practice would serve you well, too.