Confronting our ‘blind spots’….

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The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions” – Leonardo da Vinci

I had an interesting experience a few days back. As a coach, I was engaging with a senior corporate leader who very emotionally and emphatically lamented the lack of ‘listening skills’ in his organization.  As I observed him engaging with his team, he himself was showing quite poor listening skills!

I jokingly prodded him whether he had assessed himself on this desired competency, and he seemed to genuinely believe that he was a much better listener than his superiors and peers.

This example highlights the power of blind spots, and how mature leaders can fall for this human frailty.

So what are personality blind spots?  The Johari window talks of the ‘blind area’ as that part of our personality which is clearly seen by others, but unknown to us.  Some very simple ( and obvious)  examples could be  bad breath, poor dressing sense or posture, limp handshakes , poor listening skills while some complex  blind spots (related to work) could be  emotional immaturity, favoritism, aggression, tactical approach etc.

Like the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’, we are blissfully unaware of these ‘behavioral issues’ as we go about our work, while everyone else can see the obvious.

The significance of this human trait is that even direct feedback is most times ignored or perceived differently.

Why are blind spots difficult to spot?  As per most experts, usually these ‘harmful personality disorders’ just do not fit into our self- image. For example, a highly intelligent and successful corporate leader may not accept that he is low on emotional intelligence as it does not fit his self- image. His thinking might be “considering all I have achieved, I have to be emotionally intelligent”.

I knew of a team leader who had a habit of bragging, and when lost in a monologue, would start crossing all credible limits in describing his achievements. When given subtle feedback on this ‘blind spot’, he would simply go deaf, and not really ‘hear’ the feedback. Amazingly, after the bragging he would comment on how he’ is an honest and straightforward guy’…. which was a true reflection of how he saw himself.

Secondly, even if we are made aware of our ‘blind spots’, we do not realize the damage it is doing to ourselves. We keep getting feedback from our family, coworkers or friends, but at a subconscious level, most of us either trivialize it or decide that it is not important to correct. So a coworker who is a poor team player because of indiscipline or a friend who works late hours because of procrastination have imagined other reasons for their issues, and are busy fighting them.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, as blind spots are a conflict area between our self- image and our real personality, there could be a deep underlying fear in facing them.  At every moment, we strive to deepen our positive self -image (and build confidence) to be able to go out and fight with the world, and it could be quite a setback to realize that there is a big hole in that ‘beautiful picture of ourselves’.

So what can we do to identify our blind spots?  It’s not easy, and may require some courage. Yet it could significantly change our lives for the better.  Blind spots are found by asking for direct feedback from people around us.

But before we take feedback, we could self-reflect on what these ‘behavioral issues’ could possibly be. Actually, blind spots usually show up as patterns in our lives. Failed relationships, elusive success, lack of friends, hostile co- workers, uncommunicative teams, stress, bad work-life balance  etc  which we attribute to extraneous reasons or ‘other people’.  As some of these negative patterns emerge, we need to accept that we are (partially or wholly) responsible for them, and do not really know what  we are doing wrong.

Once we move into that space, the three simple questions we could ask (to people we engage with regularly) are:

  1. Is there something about me, which I cannot see but is obvious to you? Listen carefully, and take the details of the behavior. Ask for actual instances when it happened. The feedback might come laced with opinion or any emotional baggage, which you could ignore (after all, everyone is human!).  Pick up the details of your actual behavior as observed by them.
  2. How do you think this is harming me? This question will help understand the impact of the behavior on others and thus yourself. Also, it would deepen your awareness so you do not trivialize it or explain it away. To take a personal example, I have had a tendency to stoop when I am walking thoughtfully. Despite getting feedback (especially from my wife), I would ignore it as I never really felt it was impacting me. Till one day, I got a playful (but pointed) feedback from a senior mentor, that due to the posture I was being perceived as an under confident person. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to improve my posture while walking.
  3. What can I do different? This question deserves feedback from another person, and also some self- reflection and is critical to complete the process of moving out of the ‘blind spot’. Most importantly, it also diminishes the fear of denting our self- image.  For example, a leader who is a poor listener, once made aware of this blind spot, could ‘role play’ how she could listen more attentively to a colleague. The process of experiencing the ‘changed behavior’ could add significantly to her self- image while resolving the ‘blind spot’.

 Identifying ‘blind spots’ and resolving them is an exercise in humility (and could be painful) as we may need to put our ego aside, and don the mantle of a true learner who is seeking the ‘truth’.  But, in the long run, the returns would be truly immeasurable. Most importantly, we would hold a self- image which is a truer reflection of our real personality.

 Any thoughts or feedback are welcome!

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