Tag Archives: blind spots

A slippery slope to disaster

It had been a good morning of snowboarding out west. Each run I pushed the edge a little more, tried to go a little faster or carve a tighter turn. And, no falls! I was ready to risk a double black diamond run. It was just slightly steeper I told myself, I can get away with it. But no! I lost my edge and took a spectacular fall.   Luckily all I lost was a little snowboard cred with my buddies but when leaders push the edge of integrity they can get on a slippery ethical slope that leads to a much more damaging career crash.

You may have heard about the slippery slope of ethics but until 2015 it had not been closely studied or truly understood how it works. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology answered a few of those questions and can help leaders avoid falling down an ethical slope. The study also addressed how to create a culture that discourages ethical breeches. The key finding is that when small trivial behaviors that are slightly questionable are not noticed or called out over time there is a large increase in the likelihood that ethical people will commit larger violations in the future. This evidence demonstrates that getting away with seemingly minor acts like grabbing a few pens from the supply closet and bringing them home or extending a medical appointment to run an errand makes it easier for people to next add a few extra dollars on their meal expense report or fudge a few data points in their research. And if that isn’t noticed it can build to covering up safety issues, rigging a hiring processes, embezzlement or outright financial fraud. Crashing careers, reputations and institutions.

Personally leaders need to be aware that even they can be swept down an ethical slippery slope without realizing it if they work in a culture that doesn’t pay attention to trivial incidents. The study recommends establishing a personal vigilance on ethics that encompasses all issues, large and small. In addition, it reinforces the importance of leaders clearly defining misconduct and quickly addressing even trivial behaviors to ensure that people don’t set themselves up for a larger crash down the road. The authors describe this as developing a “prevention focus” by:

  • setting clear ethical standards
  • openly discussing and describing potential ethical dilemmas employees may face
  • role-modeling ethical behavior
  • responding quickly and openly to even minor violations – this doesn’t require draconian punishment but it does require notification and follow-through
  • reinforcing vigilance and respect for ethical behavior in all settings

Slippery slopes are exhilarating on my  snowboard but they can cause even the most ethical of leaders to crash and destroy their integrity without proper vigilance.

Todd Thorsgaard

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Truly understand by hearing everything.

To truly understand others, leaders need to listen – not talk! That may sound easy but in the day-to-day crush of work and deadlines and priorities it is a challenge. Yet the payoff is huge. In fact, one study discovered that the strongest predictor of trust is a leaders ability to listen with empathy and respond based on what they hear.

Harvard Business Review suggests that leaders focus on three crucial “behavioral sets” to improve their listening.

  1. Actively recognizing ALL verbal and nonverbal cues. People speak with much more than the words they use and listening is different than just reading a transcript of their statement. We all have “misheard” or “misread” an email. Empathic listening involves paying attention to things like tone, emphasis, energy, excitement, reticence, body movement, gestures, and facial expressions. Seeking to understand both what is being said and what isn’t being said demonstrates true listening.
  2. Processing the message or tactical listening. Sharpen your skills and use techniques or tools to help you follow along with the speaker, remember what is being said, keep track of key points, identify areas of agreement/disagreement, and capture the overall message. This can be as simple as taking notes, using summary statements and minimizing distractions. It also involves giving up control of the conversation and focusing all attention on the other person.
  3. Assuring others that genuine listening has occurred and that conversations will continue.  Only the people on your team can accurately state if they feel listened to. Leaders need to use verbal and nonverbal actions to share the message that they are listening and want to continue listening. Ideas include verbal acknowledgements, clarifying questions, summary statements, check-in’s, paraphrasing and at times even restating a point being made. Your non-verbals are also being watched so eye contact, posture, facing each other, nodding along, and mirroring body language all reinforce your empathic listening.

Learning to listen builds trust and helps you say more with less talking.

Todd Thorsgaard

Blind spots

Best of HigherEDge, first published on January 9, 2013.

We had our first snow and ice of the year and the news has been filled with reports of car accidents and spin-outs. It reminded me of this post. I hope those of you in the midwest scraped your windows so you could avoid a crash due to a blind spot.   Todd Thorsgaard

Has this happened to you? You are a good driver, you have the best intentions, and you are paying attention and following all the rules, yet when you signal your lane change and start to move – suddenly you hear a horn honking! Next comes screeching brakes or a crunching sound and an impact. What happened? There was a car in your blind spot.

As leaders, we also have blind spots. Have you ever been surprised by how people on your team react to something you have said or done? Are there times when the pep talk you gave to help motivate someone or the wise piece of advice that you knew was exactly what your team member needed didn’t have the effect you intended?

I still remember the reaction I got from teammates in one of my first jobs after graduate school. My boss called me into her office for my 30 day check-in. I was meeting all my initial goals and I was providing good consulting resources, but my colleagues had shared that they did not think I valued their experience and they didn’t like my “attitude.” I was crushed! I respected them and was so happy to be working on a high performing committed team. What was going on? It was a blind spot. I had just spent a period of time in graduate school where we were expected to always ask critical and probing questions, on every idea raised by anyone. I thought I was demonstrating respect and letting my colleagues know how much I valued their experience and insight by asking questions and seeking to better understand what they were sharing. What they were feeling was that I was challenging their ideas and didn’t trust their experience!

Leadership is a two-way street filled with people. As Anita described in her last post, successful leaders need to understand how their actions impact others.  The Johari Window, a tool created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, highlights that we need feedback to better understand ourselves and to minimize our blind spots. (click on image to enlarge)

johari-window2

Increased self-understanding leads to greater effectiveness in leading others.  I needed to ask my boss in that new job what was happening, why were people reacting the way they were? I was unaware that when I immediately responded with a question to a colleague’s idea they felt like I didn’t value their expertise. It felt attacking. I was destroying trust while I blindly thought I was engaging in a spirited debate. Now, as a leader, my natural style is to focus on facts and reasons and I can be blind to how that feels to people on my team. I have learned that I need to continually seek feedback from others on the impact of my actions. Luckily I also have a trusted relationship with my current manager and I am able to ask about my blind spots and the impact they have on my leadership.

What leadership blind spots have you discovered in yourself? How can you invite feedback from others or gain more self-awareness?

Todd Thorsgaard


Do you see that bird? What bird?

After college I took a road trip to the western United States with two roommates, Digger and Jorgy. While we had a great adventure I also learned a fascinating lesson about the challenge of strategic leadership.

As we were driving Digger kept exclaiming, “do you see that bird!” And Jorgy would say, “no, where?” Then Jorgy would shout out, “look at that formation” and Digger would say, “what formation, where?” Digger, the ornithologist, was always scanning the sky or treetops, while Jorgy, the geologist, was always scanning the ground. They did not easily see what the other saw.

Author and leadership consultant Bruna Martinuzzi suggests that a strategic leader has to be able to “keep an eye on the ground and on the horizon at the same time.” In an article she wrote last year she provides advice on how to develop that tricky skill of looking up and down at the same time, or developing “the ability to oversee the day-to-day operations while directing the long-term strategic imperatives.”

  1. Practice Using Reframing.  Reframing is the ability to view an issue or topic from a completely different and new perspective. A physician I worked with at my previous employer shared my favorite example of reframing. Whenever she worked with a patient who kept failing when trying to quit smoking she would reframe it by focusing on the patient’s willingness to keep trying, not on the failure. Then they could reinforce the patient’s tenacity and agree to work on trying something new. Marinuzzi describes how leaders can use a Reframing Matrix to view an issue from four different perspectives before you make a decision.
  2. Adopt Practical and Conceptual Approaches. Honestly acknowledge if you typically use a more concrete or a more abstract approach and then force yourself to carve out time in your schedule to practice the opposite. If you tend to be more practical, take time to research industry trends and analyze trends over time. If you are more comfortable in the conceptual realm, take time to review the project plans of your people or examine the day-to-day processes your people use to get their work done.
  3. Strike a Balance Between Informing and Inspiring. Examine all your different types of communication and assess how often they focus on creating clarity and sharing of information versus inspiring and motivating people. Strategic leaders must do both.

As a strategic leader you can help your team keep their eyes on the ground and the horizon.

Todd Thorsgaard

Painting the closet

My grandfather was a master painter and wallpaper hanger and I had the amazing fortune to work for him for over 20 years. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you have to deliver the basics to get the opportunity to become a true master at your craft. The first years that I worked for him I spent much of my time painting the insides of closets or the priming coat of paint. Strategic leadership also has a foundation in delivering the basics before moving to the strategic.

Rosabeth Moss Canter, in a November Harvard Business Review article, highlights that successful strategic leaders are those that have mastered execution and implementation by following these four imperatives.

Question everything. Force yourself to challenge your assumptions and tackle “sacred cows” that exist in your organization or industry.

Inform everyone, then empower champions. Focus on both breadth of awareness and ideas and depth of committed support. Share information broadly and ask for all ideas to ensure that you are considering all options. Then take action to support your early and enthusiastic adopters to demonstrate early results.

Keep relationships tight and rules loose. Build a large network of people who are comfortable sharing good and bad news with you. Focus on creating a shared vision and trust and then giving people the freedom to take action and make decisions based on their expertise.

Modify quickly. Recognize and be willing to acknowledge bad news or challenges. Learn from what isn’t working and modify as soon as possible.

Developing a strategy and announcing it isn’t enough, you have to dive in and get the closet painted.

Todd Thorsgaard

Who is accountable?

yellow-brick-roadIn the end, Dorothy, the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man each had what they needed within themselves to get to the end of the yellow brick road.  To build organizational capacity, leaders and team members must also travel down an unknown road into the future. This type of action in the face of uncertainty requires personal accountability by leaders and the development and support of personal accountability for team members.

Roger Conners and Tom Smith, in their book The Wisdom of Oz, share ideas on how to assume accountability for our own actions, how not be defined by our circumstances and how to take action to reach our goals.

Their Four Steps to Accountability are:

  1. See It – acknowledge your own blind spots to reality and seek out additional information to truly “see” the whole picture. This often involves asking others for their point of view – and listening to it.
  2. Own It – acknowledge your own role in the current situation and take responsibility for finding a solution or taking action to move forward.
  3. Solve It – do the work required to find a solution, or make a change. This can involve doing research, seeking input, working with others, trying options, or other techniques. But you must take ownership of finding what you need to do.
  4. Do It – take concrete action to do what you need to do when you need to do it!

We don’t always know what the future will bring but if we accept our personal accountability we can shape our own future and not be controlled by a wizard behind the curtain.

Todd Thorsgaard

 

Foolish or appropriate?

teeter-totterI rode my first teeter-totter last week on my mountain bike. To me it felt like a well thought out and reasonable action to take. I have been practicing my “skinny” skills and my bike handling has improved over the past year. I have watched my brother ride teeter-totters and he has shared with me information on technique so I felt well prepared. Was I afraid? Yes! Was it scary? Yes! Was it a risk? Yes! (Did I make it? Yes!)

We all assess and take different types of risk. Leaders are asked to take “appropriate” risks and then make decisions. Your success depends on your ability to accurately understand, assess, judge and take risks.

Dylan Evans, a researcher on risk and author of Risk Intelligence, believes that we can develop our skills in this area and actually build our “risk quotient.” The starting point for increasing our risk intelligence is the ability to accurately understand and accept what we do know and what we don’t know. Research has shown that most of us are bad at estimating probabilities based on what is actually know or not known. We end up either overconfident or excessively uncertain, both of which lead to poor risk assessment and decisions.

Leaders can use the following checklist that Evans developed to better understand and improve their risk intelligence.

  1. Do you consciously review what you know before making a decision?
  2. How does what you know actually relate to the decision?
  3. How likely is each piece of information to be true and how does that likelihood influence your decision?
  4. What else do you know that might actually relate to the decision?

Purposely and consciously asking these questions and using the results will increase your ability to assess risks and then make better decisions about an uncertain future.

Good luck on your next teeter-tooter of leadership!

Todd Thorsgaard