Create New PossibilitiesTM

Are You Blind to Your Blindspots?

A friend of mine has been really frustrated at work.

He lamented that he regularly offers feedback on the company’s outdated processes, offers ideas for innovations, and attempts to contribute to the company’s mission in the best way he knows how.

But he’s growing tired of being shut down.

“Our manager has been with the company for a long time. She put in her time and climbed the ladder so she’s got all this confidence about the way things are supposed to be done. Although she’ll hear ideas and pretends she’s open to feedback, the truth is that she rejects anyone else’s perspective. And to make matters worse, she thinks we’re all excited about the decisions she makes without our input.”

My friend is getting close to beginning the job hunt again, and I don’t blame him. Who wants to work in a place where their ideas are ignored?

The sad truth is that my friend’s example is one of millions. I’m constantly hearing stories of bosses and leaders who miss the opportunities to innovate and build better teams because they’re trapped in their own sense of self-confidence.

I get it. Confidence is an attractive quality. It’s also something we’ve been taught is valuable in leadership. If you don’t know something we’re told to “fake it ‘til we make it”. We develop the sense that it’s better to appear knowledgeable than it is to be vulnerable.

But confidence prevents us from seeing other possibilities, opportunities, and paths to making stuff better.

Confidence blinds us to our blindspots.

Confidence blinds us to our blindspots.

I see it in magic, and I see it in relationships. But there’s a story I like to share in my presentations that is my favourite illustration of this point.

In 1995 in Pittsburgh, PA a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks with a gun in broad daylight. Oh – and made no attempt to cover his face.

Now I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure wearing a mask is one of the first things you’d learn in bank robbing 101.

But not this fella. Not only did he not cover his face but he also actually looked right at a security camera and smiled on his way out the door with the loot in hand.

The police reviewed the security footage and identified the man quickly. They showed up at his front door to arrest him.

What’s particularly noteworthy in this case is how surprised McArthur Wheeler was when the authorities knocked on his door.

Apparently, he couldn’t fathom how they found him. “But I was wearing the juice!” he exclaimed.

A curious thing to say, the police probed further. What they learned caught the attention of psychologists the world over.

It turns out that McArthur Wheeler had learned that one could use lemon juice as a sort of invisible ink. To the uninitiated, if you write a message on paper with lemon juice and let it dry, the message is invisible UNTIL your intended recipient adds a bit of heat to the paper, at which point the communication is completed.

Fascinated by this technology, Mr. Wheeler extrapolated that he could turn his own face invisible if he covered himself in citrus sauce. As long as he stayed away from a heat source, he thought he could walk into banks and rob them anonymously, escaping cleverly with the cash and a sense of self-confidence.

This story gets giggles and gasps of astonishment every time I share it. It’s pretty easy for us as observers to pass judgments and poke fun at the ridiculousness of this guy’s thinking.

“What a dummy!” we say. “Who would think something so stupid?!”

But here’s the thing: All of us, every single one of us, is “wearing the juice.”

But here’s the thing: All of us, every single one of us, is “wearing the juice.”

This phenomenon is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. We tend to overestimate our knowledge and feel unjustly confident in our beliefs.

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There are things in our lives we confidently know to be true, but about which we are wrong.

We’re confident we’ve explored all possible solutions to a problem or challenge, when actually there are ideas waiting for us to discover them.

We’re confident that we have all the answers, and that our teammates are too inexperienced or naïve to have something to contribute, so we put limits on others and miss the chance to gain their insights.

We’re confident about our own abilities and inabilities and put labels on ourselves that prevent us from discovering our fuller potential.

It’s not enough to be confident about something for that belief to be true. But we love the feeling of being right so much that we regularly forget this idea.

In the case of my friend’s manager, all she’d have to do is admit the limits of her own thinking and she’d stumble upon a wealth of possibilities. The organization would innovate and constantly be improving, team members would feel more connected to the company and each other, and perhaps most relevant for the modern workspace, people would enjoy coming to work and take more pride and ownership in their jobs.

So the question is, what’s your juice? What beliefs do you currently hold in confidence that are limiting you from seeing other possibilities? What information are you missing because you’re self-assured in your perspective?

If we can learn to see the limits of our thinking, and recognize the danger of being too confident about our ideas, we will grow both personally and professionally, and build more trusting relationships along the way.

At least, I’m pretty sure about that.

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“Your keynote was right on the mark and staff are still citing a few key messages around the office. Thank you again for your great session, it was loved by all! Which is a hard thing to accomplish with this group!”
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Lenka Nyeste, Sun Life Financial
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