Brian is wicked smart. Aced his MBA program. Was tagged “high potential” the second he joined the corporate work force. Promoted faster than others. Given teams to lead. Promoted again. And again.
Until he wasn’t.
When I have a call with Alexandra, Brian’s VP of Human Resources, I hear all the ways in which Brian has pissed people off. The list is long. The details aren’t pretty.
Brian needs to get out of his own way, Alexandra says to me with a sigh.
I have always loved this saying.
When I have Brian on the phone, I appreciate Alexandra’s choice of language even more. I find Brian to be bright and quick and charming. I instantly understand that Brian doesn’t mean to piss people off. There is no malice. He simply doesn’t know any better.
I find myself thinking of all the ways in which you and I will get in OUR own way. Brian’s behavior brings to mind the phrase “blind spot.” The stuff about us that is frequently visible to others but not to ourselves
A blind spot, so goes the APA (American Psychological Association) definition, is a lack of insight or awareness - often persistent - about a specific area of one’s behavior or personality, typically because recognition of one’s true feelings and motives would be painful. In classical psychoanalysis, it is regarded as a defense against recognition of repressed impulses or memories that would threaten the patient’s ego.
If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule. Never lie to yourself."Paulo Coelho
We create blind spots to protect ourselves from who we really are. In the act of this self-protection, we inflict more personal pain on ourselves and the people we engage with. Ouch.
In his classic leadership book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Marshall Goldsmith describes 20 archetypal behaviors of leaders who have moved up the ranks into roles of increasing authority. 20 behaviors that don’t serve them now. They likely didn’t work too well in their past, either. Personal blind spots.
Here is my own list of the 7 major blind spots that I witness in my work as an Executive Coach, informed by 20 years of doing this work. All of us, whether we work in corporate life or not, are susceptible to these blind spots.
Because we’re human. Because we want to succeed. Because we carry pain that longs to be masked.
You want to succeed. Badly. Chances are, you have been rewarded for this desire to succeed. They have called you a go-getter. A winner. Because of this strong desire, you may at times get impatient with colleagues who challenge your ideas. You may cut short discussion or conversation that seems to interfere with what you have in mind. You may be tempted to promise outcomes that others tell you are not possible to achieve. And when what they have warned you about becomes reality, you drive your colleagues even harder to make it work.
Your ambition, no matter how well-intentioned, has just met your dark side.
Grandiosity means firmly believing that you’re smarter than others. Know more than you perhaps actually know. You disregard tribal knowledge because you view yourself as an innovator and not a tradition-worshipper. Devalue the contributions of those who are perhaps not as articulate or energetic as you.
Even if you are the smartest person in the room, smart never gets you much of anything. You run danger of becoming the jerk in the room. And in business, as in all of life, we don’t create sustained success when others don’t want to play with us.
You believe that the best solutions are simple. You don’t like people that complicate things. You affirm that great leaders know how to simplify complexity. True. But please remember that they only do so by embracing complexity first. Walking into it. Welcoming ambiguity. Fully facing all that is not easily understood or codified. They lean in. They do not avoid.
There is a fine line between simple and simplistic. Know where that line is.
It’s the opposite of forcing outcomes, acting grandiose, avoiding complexity. We keep conducting more and more data research before we believe we’re ready to decide. We ask for more scenario planning, more risk analysis. We hire yet another consultant and speak to one more group of Key Opinion Leaders. We don’t ever feel like we have enough information to make a well-considered decision. We habitually second-guess ourselves. We live in perpetual mental overwhelm.
Enough. We think we can predict outcomes. Memo from the pandemic – we can’t.
You’re doing all the right things. You praise people. Involve your team in decision-making. You have a genuinely positive outlook. You take great steps to make sure you’re likeable. You go the extra-mile to communicate well with everyone.
All the right things. For many, it’s all just a bit too much. Too perfect. They want to scream Enough already. Relax and stop trying so hard. So relax, please.
The wrong people? That’s the people who maybe don’t have the very best ideas. The greatest integrity. Or perhaps don’t even have your back. They DO know how to ingratiate themselves with you. They play you well. They make you feel good. You, in turn, reward them with plum assignments or a speedy promotion.
Trust substance over flash, integrity over joviality. Above all, know the difference.
This, in many ways, is the shadow of all shadows. The Blind Spot that encapsulates most of the others. You’ve been encouraged to take ownership of your accomplishments but somehow it comes across as grandstanding. You have been told that ambition is a wonderful thing – but what you didn’t “get” is that it’s ambition for the collective success they want, not your own. And anything you say – even when it is about THEM – somehow always sounds like it’s about you.
Humility escapes you. Because deep down, very deep down, you fear that you will never be enough.
We need to forget what we think we are so that we can really BECOME what we are."Paulo Coelho
There is only one remedy to overcoming blind spots. Radical self-awareness.
Shine a light on your blind spots. Make the invisible visible. Invite frequent feedback. From the right people, not the wrong ones. Work with a therapist or a coach. Engage with communities where the engagement is never about your personal success. Where you can let go.
Be curious about the pain that you may be hiding. Be courageous enough to open the door to that pain. Unmask it.
Fewer blind spots will be your reward. More everyday ease. And you will, in the words of Paulo Coelho, BECOME more of what you are.