Self-Awareness and “Blindspots”

Do blind spots and low self-awareness limit our leadership effectiveness?

If you read my last newsletter (#6: “Psychological Safety”), I wonder how you assessed – or “scored” – the level of psychological safety in your organization? How would you assess the level of psychological safety you feel with your boss? What “score” would your direct reports give for the level of psychological safety on the team you lead?  And how would you know?  How aware are you/am I of our impact on others?

The focus for this issue of the newsletter is self-awareness and “blind spots.” As cited in one of the articles below, virtually all of us think we are fairly self-aware…and the research would indicate we over-estimate our ability to see ourselves the way others see us.  One powerful lesson I have learned after debriefing hundreds of multi-rater feedback reports comparing how we rate ourselves with how others rate us: virtually all of us have blind spots.  

Do blind spots and low self-awareness limit our leadership effectiveness?  The articles and resources I’ve included in this month’s newsletter would suggest the answer is a resounding “yes!” – although I acknowledge my own blind spots may have caused me to overlook or discount research to the contrary!

Scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries if the titles grab you, and/or delve more fully in places as your time allows. Also, my colleague Andrew Stevens and I are launching a new open-enrollment leadership course that I hope will be of interest to you – check it out!


A new virtual leadership development course offered/co-facilitated by Barry Bales!

“Foundations of Systems Thinking”

Facilitated by Barry Bales and Andrew Stevens 

This is the virtual – and partly asynchronous – version of the “Systems Thinking in Action” course I have delivered for over 25 years to individuals and organizations around the US and in 5 other countries around the world.  Co-developed by my Australian colleague, Andrew Stevens, “Foundations” introduces the tools and processes for learning to use a “systems thinking lens” to better understand – and then address – the organizational challenges with which we are faced.

The asynchronous portions of this course enable participants to engage these concepts at their own convenience. The ‘live’ synchronous portions are more intensely focused on the application of these new skills.  A custom version of this course is available on an in-house basis, and the first open-enrollment version of “Foundations” will be offered this Spring (dates to be announced in mid-February). For more information on schedules and to reserve your place, contact me at [email protected].

Useful Resources

“What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)”

Tasha Eurich, Jan 4, 2018, HBR 

(Note: even without a subscription, you can access a limited number of HBR articles per month)

Comments:  I liked this article because the study on which it was based both reviewed a large number of existing scientific studies (almost 800) and conducted its own studies (10 separate investigations involving 5,000 people).  The short version of the author’s results: most of us believe we are self-aware while only 10-15% of us actually are.  She identifies the roadblocks, myths and truths about what self-awareness really is.

Key findings/concepts (mostly in the author’s words):

  1. There are two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness (how clearly we can see our own values, passions, reactions, strengths, weaknesses, and impact on others) and external self-awareness (understanding how others view us on those same factors).  Being high in one type of awareness does not mean one is high in the other.  Leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them.
  2. Experience and power can hinder self-awareness. Experience can not only lead us to a false sense of confidence about our performance but can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge. Similarly, the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities (citing a study on “Executive Blind Spots: Discrepancies Between Self- and Other-Ratings”).  She posits some reasons why, when true, these might be the case. 
  3. Introspection doesn’t always improve self-awareness. The problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective – it’s just that most people are doing it incorrectly, asking themselves “why” they reacted the way they did when “why” isn’t a helpful question. Because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.  “What” questions might better help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on new insights.

“Does Your Definition of Leadership Exclude Women of Color?”

Marlette Jackson and Paria Rajai, Harvard Business Review, January 20, 2021. 

Comment:  Can your organization have blind spots in its policies, practices and culture that preference some over others?  You may have long been aware of such organizational blind spots. The events over the last year have caused me to become more aware of some of my personal blind spots – and this article has alerted me to where I need to look for more.  Our current ideas of leadership often ignore the value underrepresented groups bring to our organizations. By recognizing and adjusting our internal hiring, advancement and leadership decisions, our organizations can expand the definition of who “fits” and take tactical steps to make progress towards systemic change.  

Key points (mostly in the authors’ words):

  • The attributes companies often look for in leaders, such as competitive, dominant, objective, self-confident, aggressive, ambitious, are overwhelmingly masculine. This leaves women of color at a double disadvantage: They often don’t fit companies’ measures for leadership, because those measures were developed for someone else.
  • Focus on contributing to the larger good – not just achieving your objectives.
  • Strive to win the ‘big battles’ – don’t waste energy and psychological capital on trivial points.
  • Present a realistic ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of your ideas – don’t just sell the benefits.
  • Challenge up on issues involving ethics or integrity.
  • Treat upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers.
  • Support the final decision of the team/manager.
  • Make a positive difference – don’t just try to win or ‘be right.’
  • Focus on the future and let go of the past. Avoid ‘whining’ about the past.

“The Top 10 Leadership Blind Spots, and 5 Ways to Turn Them Into Strengths”

Marissa Levin, INC., July 13, 2017

Comments: This is a quick-read article that is easily digestible.  One of the sources quoted frequently in this article is “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Bradberry, which is itself is a valuable resource.  While it might seem that leaders with the most experience and the most seniority would have the highest levels of self-awareness, the opposite is often true.  Blind spots can be the Achilles heel of leadership, as they may limit the way we act, react, behave or believe and, thereby, limit our effectiveness.

The top ten blind spots:

  1. Going it alone (being afraid to ask for help) 
  2. Being insensitive of your behavior on others (being unaware of how you show up)
  3. Having an “I know” attitude (valuing being right above everything else)
  4. Avoiding the difficult conversations (conflict avoidance)
  5. Blaming others or circumstances (playing the victim; refusing responsibility)
  6.  Treating commitments casually (not honoring the other person’s time, energy, resources)
  7. Conspiring against others (driven by a personal agenda)
  8. Withholding emotional commitment (emotional blackmail)
  9. Not taking a stand (lack of commitment to a position)
  10. Tolerating “good enough” (low standards for performance)

The author additionally suggests five practices for curing your blind spots!

“Korn Ferry institute Study Shows Link Between Self-Awareness and Company Financial Performance”

June 15, 2015

Comment: This short synopsis is of a study conducted by the Korn Ferry Institute analyzing almost 7,000 self-assessments of professionals from 486 publicly traded companies to identify the “blind spots” in individuals’ leadership characteristics.  According to Korn Ferry’s definition, a blind spot is a skill that a professional counted among his or her strengths when coworkers cited that same skill as one of the professional’s weaknesses. 

Does this study prove that companies whose professional-level staff have high levels of self-awareness will be more profitable than others? No. Does it suggest that high levels of self-awareness might make a difference? I didn’t access the full study, but I was intrigued by their reported findings.  

Key findings of the Korn Ferry Institute’s study:

  • Poorly performing companies’ professionals had 20% more blind spots than those working at financially strong companies.
  • Poor-performing companies’ professionals were 79% more likely to have low self-awareness than those at firms with robust rates of return.

Feedback – if it is received with an improvement-focused mentality – can help leaders identify their blind spots and enable personal improvement.  Korn Ferry’s study suggests that a collective focus on personal improvement leads to improvements in the organization.

Korn Ferry is a global management consulting firm operating in over 100 offices in 53 countries.

Book Review

Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions. 

Chip and Dan Heath, Random House, 2014.

Comments: “Decisive” is the third book* written by the Heath brothers, and all three are well worth reading. They note in the introduction that humanity does not have a particularly impressive track record when it comes to the decisions people make and the outcomes of those decisions. As evidence, they cite a number of examples of less-than-stellar outcomes of decisions including one study of 20,000 executive searches that found that 40% of senior-level hires are “pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months.” They also assert that when considering whether process or analysis was more important in producing good decisions, they found process mattered more than analysis by a factor of six!  

What I have appreciated in each of the previous books by the Heaths are the practical suggestions they offer, and “Decisive” continues that practice.  The headings listed below may fall under the category of “I already knew that,” but the information and examples under each are worth adding to your decision process.

Key ideas from “Decisive” (mostly in the authors’ words):

  • The four villains of decision making: Narrow Framing (the tendency to define our choices too narrowly or in binary terms); Confirmation Bias (usually unexamined); Short-Term Emotion; and Overconfidence (we think we know how the future will unfold).
  • To counter these four villains, consider the WRAP approach: 
    • Widen your options – increasing the number of options you will consider, even if identifying       only one additional option, will improve the decision.
    • Reality-test your assumptions – consider the opposite and have the courage to seek out disagreement; “ooch” your way forward (e.g. construct small experiments to test one’s hypothesis).
    • Attain distance before deciding – how would you feel about this decision 10 minutes from now? 10 months from now? 10 years from now?
    • Prepare to be wrong – set ‘bookends’ considering a range of outcomes from very good to very bad; set a “tripwire” that is the signal for revisiting your decision.

(* previous books by the Heath brothers: Switch: How to change things when change is hard” and “Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.”).  

Executive Presence Tip of the Month

[In addition to subject matter expertise, organizational acumen, and higher-level thinking skills, effective executive leadership requires the sometimes-hard-to-define practices and skills that are embodied in ‘executive presence.’   Executive presence is an elusive concept, but we know it when we see it….and one can grow her executive presence.]

Say “thank you.”

An NBC News “State of Kindness” poll found that most Americans would rather have a kind boss than a 10% raise (that doesn’t preclude getting – or giving – both, of course!).  Other recent research in positive psychology has found that expressing thanks is not only a positive thing for the person being thanked but that it also has a very positive impact on the person doing the thanking. Surveys conducted in past years by the U.S. Department of Labor have continued to find that among the top reasons people leave jobs is “not feeling appreciated.”

Homework:  Say ‘thank you’ to the people with whom you work (as well as those outside of work!), remembering to be specific about what they did that evoked your thanks, and identifying how their actions helped you or the organization.  Hand-written notes are still appreciated and/or pick up the phone to call someone. It’s most powerful when your “thank you” is a separate communication rather than being tacked on to other business communications. 

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