How Great Leaders Reduce Managerial Blind Spots


During one of the leadership trainings at Yammer led by Professor Francis Flynn, we discussed the relationship between expertise, organizational rank and confidence. It’s not what you think!

Experts aren’t at the top of the org chart

While initially counterintuitive, this concept makes sense after some consideration. Experts are the ones doing the work; they are the ones on the front lines. Experts are at the forefront because they’ve chosen a specialization and are consistently accumulating experience in the field. The further you move up in the org chart, the more business areas fall under your prevue. Naturally, as you become more removed from the daily execution, your line of vision into specific areas of expertise fades. Your expert skills dull in comparison to experts who practice their craft every day. You become a generalist who has to go wide vs. deep. You need that wide view to understand how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Managerial information blind spots

As you are going wide vs. deep, your decreased line of vision into functional areas and market needs can lead to blind spots. You are relying on your organization to surface information for you, as you can’t see everything with your own eyes. This information asymmetry can be accidental (I forgot about this or I assumed you already knew this) or deliberate (I don’t want you to know this). Whatever the cause, information asymmetry leads to managerial information blind spots, which in turn inevitably lead to poor decisions. The difference between a great leader and an OK (or terrible) one is the awareness of these blind spots and active work to remove, or at least reduce, them.

Decisions have wider ramifications

Paradoxically, while visibility and deep expertise decrease as you go up the chain of command, decisions start to have wider ramifications. To ensure that these far-reaching decisions can be good decisions, access to accurate information is paramount. Unfortunately, due to blind spots and murky line of vision, managers and executives often end up disconnected from reality. In today’s world, however, “I didn’t know” hardly cuts it as an excuse.

Social technologies democratize information by increasing access to it, across organizations and between businesses and their customers. Information can now flow freely to all levels in the organization, including upwards to management. The paradigm of a leader thus becomes someone who is open to dialogue, connected to information, committed to considering feedback and humble enough to change his/her views. This kind of leader is more intent on creating environments where information blind spots can be eradicated, instead of brandishing information as a competitive weapon.

Overconfidence leads to bad decisions

The more expert we become at something, the more we realize how little we actually know. I remember myself when I was 13 – I thought I knew everything, and I’m sure you did too. And just like you, the more I learn these days, the less I know and the more open I am to knowledge and alternative viewpoints.

Paradoxically, when you are a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know and may feel the false confidence that comes with lack of experience. When leaders and managers don’t know what they don’t know – and especially when they are used to people telling them what they want to hear – they lose inertia to search for alternative viewpoints and challenge their decisions. This myopic view leads to making bad decisions because it doesn’t allow for the possibility of being wrong, or the desire to learn more.

Reducing managerial blind spots

The practice of working out loud, as detailed by John Stepper,  or narrating your work (also read this great post by Harold Jarche) is well supported by an enterprise social network. By narrating our work, we can solicit feedback before we proceed too far in any given project. The practice of narration also lets us share what we’ve done, which helps us show vs. tell our own expertise and learn of what others are doing and good at. It’s a much more natural alternative to the weekly recap.

How many of you struggle with weekly recaps? I know I do! When I remember to do them, it’s always a painful experience trying to think of what I did that week or what I will do the following week. This is especially difficult in fast-paced environments where projects move around and get displaced by other projects and tasks quickly. If you consistently narrate your work and use the right taxonomy to organize, you will have a running list of accomplishments and lessons learned, which is always available to you and whoever else is interested in it. Managers can then avoid information blind spots by simply curating, consuming and tying together relevant signals from across the organization.

Leveraging expertise of others

Another way in which narrating your work removes managerial blind spots is through openness, which invites contribution of others. This way, leaders who are in the throes of making a decision or putting together a strategy can do a gut check with their experts and solicit feedback. The key thing is that this can be done without proceeding too far in a project; pivoting early helps save the organization effort and money – freeing up resources to pursue something meaningful – and helps the manager “save face.” Access to better information quite simply increases the quality of decisions made, and good decisions lead to lower costs, higher profits and higher morale.

If you are in a leadership position, how do you avoid informational blind spots? If you are an employee, how do you keep everyone in the loop and raise your visibility/expertise? How do you narrate your work?

Photo source: quadrapop