by Achim Nowak

When A Blind Spot Derails Your Career

August 27, 2023

Raul Vargas, the newly-minted CEO of the venerable Farmers Insurance company, made a fatal decision. This May, he decided that the majority of Farmers employees would be required to be back in the office at least 3 days a week for in-person work.

His decision reversed the policy announced by the preceding CEO a year ago that the vast majority of Farmers employees would remain remote workers, post-pandemic.

This is the sort of tough decision we want a new CEO to make, right? Take bold new action. Change the status quo. Right the ship.

Well, not really. Poor Raul wasn’t quite prepared for what hit him. His decision sparked worker outrage. After the previous CEOs announcements, many Farmers employees had sold their homes. Moved to other parts of the country, lowered their cost of living, simplified their lives.

Over 2000 employees posted enraged comments on Farmers employees’ internal social-media platform. Left angry and crying emojis. One employee called Vargas’ move a power move that is frankly disgusting. (Chris Morris, Fortune, 6/6/2023).

Mind you, this is not an essay about the benefits of working remotely. No, this is about one CEO who, new to his role and company culture, didn’t quite understand context.

Raul clearly has a few blind spots in his own inner operating system. In the midst of a major personal career shift, with the performance pressures of a new role, the blind spots suddenly became visible.

If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule. Never lie to yourself.

Paulo Coelho

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.

I find myself thinking of all the ways in which you and I at times get in our own way. We cling to 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. Raul, in his rash move to reverse remote-work policies at Farmers, was animated by more than one of these.

All of us are susceptible to these blind spots. Because we’re human. Because we want to succeed. Because we carry pain that longs to be masked. 

7 Must-Avoid Blind Spots

7. Forcing Outcomes

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.

6. Acting Grandiose

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.

5. Avoiding Complexity

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.

4. Not Making Decisions

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.

3. Trying Too Hard

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.

2. Trusting the Wrong People

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.

1. Making It About YOU

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.

When the Farmers employee revolt at the decision made by Raul Vargas became fully evident, Raul tried to explain himself. He made a public statement, saying he believed in the importance of office work because it fosters “collaboration, creativity and innovation.”

Poor Raul.

Know that I believe in the sentiment Raul expressed. In the context of what happened, however, it sounds like lame justification. Corporate gobbledygook.

No self-awareness, No comprehension of context. More blind spots exposed.

Last thing I heard, Raul is still in his CEO role. His effectiveness as a leader, however, has been irrevocably damaged.

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 support communities where the engagement is never about your personal success.

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.

Amen.

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