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Leader Blind Spots

While it’s vital to examine the effects that self-deceiving leaders have on an organization, it is also of great importance to discuss the effect self-deception has on the leader. When an organization suffers at the hands of an ineffective or destructive leader, many people suffer. These consequences can be avoided if an organization better prepares its leaders. Self-aware leaders achieve this state by accepting all feedback, both self-supporting and ego-deflating. The important thing is to make sure the leader first receives the feedback so they can properly assess its effect on their capabilities.


Blind Spots

A blind spot refers to a blockage of one’s vision. This blockage results in the person not being able to see what’s coming at them. If you think about a blind spot for the driver of a car, it’s a location around their vehicle that they temporarily cannot see that may contain an approaching tractor-trailer. The danger is obvious; in high-speed traffic, it benefits the driver of the car to see the potential danger before it results in a fatal collision.


To extend this metaphor to strategic leadership, think of a blind spot as an impending danger that one could see if one only adjusted their input. By adjusting the car’s mirrors in the example above, the driver could see when the tractor-trailer is getting too close or threatening to strike the more vulnerable vehicle. The same goes for leadership. Leaders have blind spots when they do not actively seek out sources of feedback or adjust their openness to receiving information. If they do not see the impending danger, they cannot effectively react to it. They are not equipped to identify their deficiencies and work to eliminate them.[1]


Assuming the information is readily available to help the leader see their leadership blind spots, the leader must be willing to face their ugly truths to overcome their shortfalls. A blind spot in a leader’s abilities emerges when they are unwilling to acknowledge and receive feedback they might not want to see.[2] To compound this, the leader may be more prone to seek out positive feedback over negative feedback creating a wider chasm in their understanding of their abilities. If they only want to learn about the positives about the leadership practices, they will end up being even that much more unaware of their blind spots.[3]


Dealing with Negative Feedback

How a leader deals with negative feedback is somewhat dependent on their view of themselves as a leader. A leader’s view of themselves and their leadership abilities can distort the information they receive to fit their preconceived notions. A leader with an inflated view of themselves may find it difficult to accept negative feedback from peers or subordinates or even their superiors. They may also be reluctant to seek out feedback if they suspect they will not agree with what they will receive.[4] If they receive negative feedback or information that threatens their self-esteem, they are less likely to acknowledge the veracity of the information and use it to improve their performance.[5]


Not all leaders are overly-confident. A leader with a deflated view of their leadership acumen may choose to limit further self-evaluation and block more negative feedback from further damaging their already low self-esteem.[6] A leader in the sweet spot between inflated and deflated self-efficacy should be more open to receiving the opinions of others, even if that opinion may be threatening. The leader in this position would be less prone to developing blind spots resulting in a more accurate view of themselves as leaders.[7]


Feedback Filter

Deceiving oneself and deceiving someone else have a similar requirement: distorted information. Deception requires the manipulation of, deletion of, or manufacturing of critical information. A leader can self-deceive by not telling themselves the whole truth.[8] Someone intent on deceiving themselves may be inclined to keep themselves in the dark about unwanted and unflattering information and actively work to block this feedback.[9] This information that does not make it into the leader’s self-evaluation process could have consequences on their self-awareness.[10]


In my interview with Scullard, he told me that he believes not all instances of a lack of self-awareness in a leader can be attributed to self-deception. One can attribute self-deception in some people to genuine physiological issues with cognitive and emotional processing, such as a person with autism. More often than not, though, someone who is seen as self-deceptive may just have a distorted view of the world. This distortion could come from their upbringing or experiences that creates ruts in information processing. New information coming in could get trapped in these ruts that then funnel the information into an already-held view of things.[11]


Bounded Awareness

Blocking unwanted information is just one level of self-deception. Wrapping incorrect information around a false self-image is on another level. A leader’s self-rating can be inflated if they are ignorant of how they are seen by others.[12] This ignorance could be true ignorance or self-inflicted if they knowingly choose to ignore information. Either way, scholars have introduced the concept of bounded awareness to describe when someone systematically fails to see information that is relevant.[13] This is a common tendency to exclude important information from one’s decision calculus. Such a practitioner places arbitrary and dysfunctional bounds around their perception of a problem.[14] The result is a biased approach to processing their self-view. By eliminating unwanted information from the totality of the data they need to improve their leadership abilities, this leader’s self-esteem benefits from being blissfully unaware of their detriments.[15]


To make the most informed decisions, strategic leaders need all the information they can get in a timely manner. More than likely the information is available, even if it is not easily obtained. Choosing to ignore or discard information because it does not fit into one’s current views creates decision-making deficiencies. Leaders must seek out and accept all relevant information, even if it does not fit how they want it to fit.


Observations

  • blind spots protect self-deceiving leaders from acknowledging information they don’t want to acknowledge

  • leaders with inflated views of themselves as leaders may find it difficult to accept negative feedback

  • failing to see relevant information contributes to a leader’s biased approach to decision-making

[1] Reissig (2011) [2] Blakeley (2007) [3] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [4] Peinaar and Nel (2017) [5] Kluger and DeNisi (1996) [6] Peinaar and Nel (2017) [7] Peinaar and Nel (2017) [8] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [9] Bandura (2011) [10] Taylor (2010) [11] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [12] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [13] Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011) [14] Bazerman and Chugh (2006) [15] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)

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