How to keep blind spots from derailing your leadership

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By Jim Funk

mirror for traffic collisionAs a leader, what you don’t know CAN hurt you.  Especially when it comes to what you might be doing wrong, even unintentionally.

Take Stanley, who has been a member of the executive team for five years. He is reaching a high frustration level with the CEO, whom he reports to directly. Because the CEO is out of town a lot, he doesn’t make himself available for ongoing conversations once he has delegated a major assignment to his executives. When he returns to the office, however, he decides that projects are not usually done to his liking. He then blames his team for not asking enough questions ahead of time about what the end product should look like.

As another example, Jill is a member of the Human Resources leadership team in a large company. She is a star performer, takes her responsibility seriously, and is known as the “go-to person” for anything having to do with change management. But Jill is unhappy. She doesn’t feel appreciated, and her boss simply isn’t one to give much recognition to his direct reports. He believes that if you just do the job well, that is recognition enough. Jill doesn’t want to go asking for recognition, but her increasing dissatisfaction is getting to her.

Lastly, Kim is a highly productive member of a company’s sales team. After only three years of experience, peers think of Kim as a superstar. But in spite of the strong performance, Kim’s boss is highly critical of her and nitpicks every little thing. Lately, Kim has started to feel literally sick to her stomach when preparing for meetings with the boss. She wants to speak up about her feelings, but she’s seen her boss become irate when she feels offended.

What do these cases have in common? Well, several things that should be troubling to any leader. First, there is a reluctance to come to these bosses with feedback or concerns. Why? Because the employees don’t think their bosses will react well. If honest feedback has not been appreciated or welcomed in the past, employees may have felt cast aside or insecure in their jobs, and are now unwilling to bring up their concerns. Any leader who is not getting honest feedback because people are afraid to provide it is suffering not only from a lack of information, but also from a lack of trust. This can be hugely detrimental to both team and individual performance.

Second, these bosses are not aware of how they are impacting their employees, and have no idea that their leadership style is suppressing creativity and making even their best employees dissatisfied. They have not made an attempt to ask their direct reports specifically how they like to be rewarded, and how they, as their boss, can be more effective as a leader. Again, without the information about what they could do better, these bosses are in the dark, and their blind spots continue.

And finally, as a result of the lack of open communication, trust, and awareness of self and others, some of the best employees and leaders of these companies are nearly ready to walk away.  Replacing them would be a great loss of talent and a large expense. Many times, bosses aren’t aware of how people really feel about them because they don’t ask. And a number of companies either don’t do exit interviews, or don’t get much information because the exiting employees understandably don’t want to burn any bridges.

If you are working in an Economy of Communion business, or are a leader in any organization that wants to follow person-centered principles, you would certainly want to address these kinds of issues. But blind spots are indeed blind—we often don’t even know we have them, or at least we don’t know what they are. Awareness of self and others is critical because it is required for emotional intelligence, which in turn is a good predictor of leadership success. As described by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, awareness is key to being able to manage one’s emotions and relationships. When leaders don’t genuinely and openly seek feedback, or don’t receive it well, they can be derailed by what they don’t know. It doesn’t mean that every bit of feedback leaders receive is accurate, but it is a perception—and perceptions are reality for people. They have real impact. And we can’t act on these perceptions unless we are aware of them.

What behaviors do we see in leaders who are more aware of themselves and others? My Holistic Leadership Competency Model (© 2016 by J L Funk & Associates) describes several key behaviors that are observable, and that can be further developed. Leaders who are more self-aware know how to:

  • Learn from their experiences and mistakes
  • Build and manage collaborative and positive relationships
  • Effectively facilitate and mediate conflict resolution
  • Communicate and listen effectively
  • Seek and act on feedback from others
  • Put others at ease through their presence and disposition
  • Regulate their own emotions and make adjustments in their behavior as appropriate
  • Respond appropriately to the emotions of others

Why are these skills important? If we think about what leaders need to be able to do to be effective, it boils down to creating a vision, getting others to follow and actualize the mission and vision, and produce results. People follow leaders they can trust, and who are able to inspire them to contribute to the mission and vision with their full engagement and passion—not just to do a job. But when self-awareness and the accompanying behaviors are missing, fear and negative stress are created in the workplace. Thinking back to our three examples, these leaders are not self-aware. Their inability to effectively communicate and ask for feedback has left them in the dark about their employees’ concerns. As a result, they aren’t getting the full engagement of their team members, who may quietly move on to other job opportunities.

What can leaders do to boost their awareness of themselves and others? Here are 10 ideas you can implement, whether you are in a leadership role or a member of a team:

  1. Ask for feedback regularly, and thank people for giving it (even if it isn’t what you wanted to hear)
  2. Engage in reflective practices, such as meditation and mindfulness to increase focus and concentration
  3. Make an explicit and public statement of your intention to be aware of your blind spots, your presence, and to place a high value on your relationships
  4. Practice stress management techniques and improve your work/life balance
  5. Acknowledge your emotions, learn your triggers for negative emotions, and develop ways to change your emotional reactions
  6. Walk around, be curious about what people are doing and notice their reactions to you
  7. Practice active listening and validate what you are hearing
  8. Practice humility, acknowledging mistakes and asking forgiveness
  9. Check your alignment by comparing what you say with what you do
  10. Take a formal assessment of your Emotional Intelligence with a validated test instrument. I recommend the EQ-i2.0 by MHS Assessments, which must be given by an authorized partner. (There is a cost. Contact me for more information.)

We also learn a lot through our experiences, and from the experiences and stories of others. I invite you to share stories about how you have uncovered your own blind spots, and how you have been able to increase your own awareness. Further, share how this awareness impacted your own effectiveness as a leader. You can reply to this post, or contact me directly by e-mailing me at jim@jlfunk.com.

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk.

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