Leadership Decisions: Why We Don’t Notice What We Need to Notice

I’ve been inspired by Harvard Professor Max Bazerman’s book The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014). It’s really caused me to think deeply about how leaders often miss key data for decisions – either by ignoring it – or because of influence by others and attention to the wrong things.

If we’re going to be successful leading organizations we can’t afford to be narrow-focused. As I wrote last week, getting leadership decisions right hinges on noticing what we need to see, even when it’s inconvenient.

When a situation doesn’t seem quite right, we cannot afford to ignore data that flies in the face of commonly accepted values. This is not the time to accept insufficient evidence, refuse to raise questions, be unwilling to badger people or avoid upsetting the apple cart.

Silence and complacency promote corruption. Nonetheless, we tend to wait. We hope we’re not being overly sensitive or alarmist. We trust that others will notice and speak up for us.

When faced with small discrepancies and anomalies, we avoid seeing the slippery slope until it’s too late. Responsible leaders don’t have this luxury. They must learn to notice and act upon conditions before a scandal erupts.

Faulty Attribution

The best leaders are skilled at detecting deception, including patterns of indirect action and errors of omission. They also have a noticing mindset. They detect slow, gradual changes that may indicate the start of a slippery slope. They’re aware of overconfidence traps, optimism biases and positive illusions.

The human brain is fallible. It can lead us to make cause-and-effect attribution errors. Most crises can be attributed to both internal and external causes, but to which are you more likely to pay attention?

Most of us are prone to a fundamental attribution bias: When we think of our success, we tend to come up with internal attributions and focus on what we did right. By contrast, when we think of our failures, we tend to come up with external attributions. We blame others, or the context, the economy and/or circumstances beyond our control. This can lead to dire consequences in decision-making and strategic planning.

How to Develop Better Noticing Skills                            

One of the things I do when coaching leaders is to help them to see what they can’t see. Everyone is prone to narrow vision when they are “standing too close to the blackboard.”

In many ways, working with a coach helps you stand back so you can see better. Leaders often fail to notice when their systems encourage misaligned goals. When we incentivize the wrong achievements, we often experience ineffective outcomes (for example, rewarding booked sales instead of actual profits).

Encourage employees to notice the gaps between the right actions and right results. Work teams are often in a better position to spot discrepancies, yet they may be reticent to speak up.

Develop your abilities to:

  • Pay attention to what didn’t happen
  • Acknowledge self-interest
  • Invent the third choice
  • Realize that what you see is not all there is (WYSINATI)

While effective leaders take pride in their keen focus, they may miss outlying data, omissions and the “gorilla on the basketball court.” You can benefit from stepping back, removing your blinders and noticing valuable information around you.

What’s been your experience? I’d love to hear from you; you can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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