Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What Can You Do About Your Blind Spots?

We all have blind spots, those areas about ourselves that we don’t realize are hindering our progress – perhaps obstructing our ability to influence, to communicate clearly, or to form trusting relationships. Sometimes our blind spots are just our strengths overused to such an extent that they cross over, as I like to say, to the dark side.

A client who was a senior manager in a technical role told me that he was good with people. He knew when to empathize, and when to give “tough love”. He communicated well to his employees, colleagues and customers and everyone appreciated his affable yet strong leadership style. He was fair, honest, and looked out for his employees. In his 360 assessment, this was all confirmed. What was also confirmed was that he had a problem with his boss. When we discussed this, it came out that he resented his new boss for inserting himself into his operation, however minimally. It was his operation, and he knew it inside and out. His new boss didn’t know or understand his customers’ temperaments and concerns.

This client’s blind spot was his need for control. For the most part, he knew how to wield it fairly and lightly with his own team – he had been doing so for years, and his leadership style had worked well. But when it came to sharing his turf with his new boss – who was not overstepping or micromanaging by my client’s own admission – he balked. His attitude was souring his relationship with his new manager. He really wanted to ignore the fact that he had a boss at all.

Exploring this need for control revealed that because he had worked with the same group of people for a decade or more, he trusted them implicitly. He could ease up on his natural tendency to be in control, and had learned over the years that being transparent, sharing information, and delegating was a more productive and easier way to lead than the alternative. However when there were new customers, new projects, or in this case, a new boss, his need to be in control would reassert itself and he would tighten up his oversight at least for a while. This tendency didn’t work well to establish a trusting relationship with his new boss.

In a Wall Street Journal article last week entitled Bosses Overestimate Their Managing Skills, survey results from Development Dimensions International (DDI) revealed that managers didn’t equate their weak skills – which they identified as coaching, delegating, and gaining commitment - as areas of development. "It doesn't matter what industry you're in. People have blind spots about where they're weak," says Scott Erker, a senior vice president at DDI.

By definition, we are not cognizant of our own blind spots. Even if, through coaching, feedback, or a 360 degree assessment, we are aware of our blind spots, we will still often unknowingly repeat that undesirable behavior.

Last week’s post was about how to gracefully ask for and accept feedback. That’s an essential skill for any leader. But in order to successfully act on that feedback you may need an ally: someone who can give you a signal, a code word, or just a blatant reminder when you revert back to your old behavior.

Anyone who has attempted to change their own or others’ behavior knows that it takes time and effort. We have built up these behaviors and ways of thinking over time and burnt them deep into our neural pathways. In a sense we really are in a rut that requires motivated, consistent behavior changes over a period of time to forge new habits. That’s why trusted allies can be valuable help. Being humble enough to count on your own employees to be those allies goes a long way toward showing the type of leader you are.

We all have blind spots. Understanding ourselves deeply is essential to being an extraordinary leader. Knowing that our personality type, experiences, philosophies, and values can drive our behavior, and understanding how they drive it, awakens us to our own strengths, opportunities for development, and potential pitfalls. Knowing yourself as well as you can – taking off blinders, realizing your impact and how you are reflected in others’ eyes – allows you to realistically assess how to leverage your strengths, and adjust for your weaknesses.

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