Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Although management teams have access to better information and more sophisticated decision support tools than ever before, many continue to struggle with a basic problem: the quality of debate in their own ranks. It’s essential that leaders understand how their own perceptions and actions can block constructive outcomes and lead to impasses. By recognizing and then acting to correct certain blind spots, executives can greatly improve their decision-making effectiveness – and improve the business performance of the companies they lead.
These blind spots often become evident when the leaders of corporations have to make difficult choices about alternative courses of action. In such cases their decisions are influenced by simplistic and untested attributions about the competence and motives of those proposing different courses of action. Each of us operate with a decision process that is highly biased by our own perspectives of a situation, and misses out essential information about what others are thinking and feeling, and how our actions are perceived by them. In short, we have blind spots.
In practice, in any interaction you can see what you are up against, what you are trying to do, how others and their actions appear to you, and what effect they are having on you. But you can’t see what others are up against, what they’re trying to do, how you appear to them, and what effect you are having on them. As a result, you have only half of the information needed to understand the dialogue from both sides (Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1 No fault of mine: seeing problems elsewhere
In any negotiation, such an asymmetric distribution of information would inevitably lead to misunderstandings and disagreements. However, the most dangerous feature of our blind spots is that we are not aware of them. Instead of recognizing the gaps in our information, we automatically fill them with our own assumptions and beliefs. This happens so naturally that we generally regard these assumptions as self-evident facts. As a result, we often do not see the need to explain our reasoning or test its validity.
The problem is that many of our assumptions turn out to be wrong. Worse, the circumstances in which we are least likely to examine the validity of our assumptions occur when we have the greatest need for accurate information, that is, when we feel under pressure. In difficult or challenging situations, when people disagree with us or propose courses of action that are at odds with our perspectives, we are more likely to dismiss them as incompetent, badly motivated or both.
At the same time, our colleagues have views of us that color their reactions to our proposals, often leading to interpretations that are quite different from what we intend. Since our intentions and reasoning are so clear to us, we assume they are equally clear to others. As a result, we rarely take the time to explain our intentions or provide our colleagues with the contextual information that might help them to understand better what we are trying to do.
Here’s a case that illustrates how blind spots produce bad outcomes.
From standpoint to standoff
After a long history of leadership in its industry, “Acme Industries” has been steadily losing market share. Although Acme has traditionally pursued a strategy of customizing its product offerings to meet local market needs, customers have become more global in nature and Acme has been losing business to competitors that have built strong global brands.
The CEO has tasked two members of his management team with developing proposals for responding. George, who is responsible for global sales, has been with the company for 20 years. Robert, a talented young marketing executive, joined the company five years ago and has recently been made responsible for developing a global brand management function.
The center column of Exhibit 2 explains what is actually being said and the side columns reveal what each of the parties is thinking at the time.
George and Robert’s exchange illustrates some classic characteristics of blind spots:
At no point in the dialogue does either manager ask the other a question or attempt to test his interpretation of what the other is proposing.
As the conversation unfolds, each manager makes increasingly negative attributions about the competence and motives of the other, and focuses exclusively on data that confirms his own views.
The two manager’s mutual frustration with one another soon leads to a sort of “nuclear escalation” in which they predict increasingly dire outcomes for the company if their recommendations are not followed. Their growing polarization follows a familiar path. As they move further from data toward vague and unsupported threats, the prospect of their finding common ground diminishes rapidly. Although each contributes equally to this impasse, it is clear that each blames the other for their failure to agree.
It doesn’t take a behavioral psychologist to predict that this dialogue isn’t likely to lead to a satisfactory resolution, now or in future. Without third-party intervention, the two will stay stuck in a standoff while their company’s market share continues to decline. If the CEO intervenes now to impose a decision, the “loser” will have every incentive to make the new strategy fail, perhaps with even worse results for the company.
Correcting for blind spots
Breaking the cycle of destructive dialogue is not easy. But there are a few simple steps that management teams can adopt which will typically lead to higher quality of debate:
Ask good questions. The single best move that management teams can make to improve the quality of debate is to ask one another more questions. Rather than assuming that someone hasn’t thought something through, it helps to ask them how they arrived at their conclusions. Rather than making dismissive assumptions about what someone is trying to do, ask them. The point is not to prolong the discussion indefinitely in the quest for consensus; the important thing is to take the time to fill in the gaps in our understanding and create a shared pool of information.All questions are not created equal: there is a big difference between asking “Why did you do it that way?” and “Why didn’t you do it the way I told you?” Questions that seek a wide range of views and encourage challenge of one’s own view are much more likely to produce valuable new insights than leading questions designed to show the other person that they are wrong.
Stay close to the facts. Unproductive debates have a tendency to veer away from facts into abstract and poorly supported statements that are open to a wide range of interpretation. Expressions such as “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick”, or “I completely disagree” are too vague to be helpful, and will inevitably create defensiveness in the other party. Bringing the conversation back to specific data and examples greatly improves the quality of dialogue and helps each participant better understand where the others are coming from. When done well, this approach can move the discussion away from an “I’m right and you’re wrong” dynamic to one of shared problem-solving.
Acknowledge the blind spots. Before you can fix the problem you have to know and accept that there is one. One company I have worked with keeps a poster illustrating its executives’ blind spots on the wall of every conference room. Not only does it serve as a useful reminder to each of them that they don’t have the full picture, but it also makes it acceptable for others to intervene when they see blind spots hindering good decision-making.
Watch for red flags. The dialogue laid out in Exhibit 2 illustrates several behaviors that should be treated as red flags, that is, important signals that the discussion is headed for trouble. These include a high level of certainty that your view of the situation is the right one, negative attributions about the other person’s competence or motives, and leading questions designed to prove a point or show others they are wrong. Red flags are also evident in the form of unilateral statements that preclude contributions from others, in the use of “private tests” to confirm your views (the “there he goes again” response), and in persistent feelings of blame, helplessness or victimhood.
Offer help – and ask for it. It is almost always easier to see destructive behavioral patterns when you are not a participant in the discussion. Armed with a basic understanding of the blind spots, you have a valuable opportunity to help other executives who are at loggerheads. Some well-placed questions can encourage your colleagues to explain their thinking to one another, or reveal a degree of agreement that neither party had perceived to be there. Your input can also help to alert colleagues to the negative consequences of their behavior.
In an increasingly competitive world, businesses can no longer afford inefficiencies of slow decision making and bad outcomes to which our blind spots contribute. Raising the quality of debate must be an urgent priority for all companies aspiring to high performance.
Management thinker Chris Argyris, has shown that the entrenched confrontational behavior of many executives is a powerful impediment to change. His core premise is that organizations actively defend themselves against change, and since the people who put up the resistance are intelligent and experienced, the defenses work remarkably well. Other observers cite the myth of the “complete leader” – the executive who supposedly has all the answers, regardless of the complexity of the organization. Acting out this myth leads some executives to pay lip service to the importance of mutual understanding when their real focus is on winning the argument.
Clearly it is not a simple matter for any executive to alter a lifetime’s habits and patterns of behavior. Our argument is not that strong and decisive leadership is a bad thing, or that consensus based decision making is always preferable. Our point is that arguments won on the basis of incomplete or downright bad data, and decisions forced on reluctant teams who have every incentive to prove them wrong, will inevitably produce suboptimal results and regrettable outcomes for shareholders.
Business leaders can no longer afford the inefficiencies of excessive friction and its fallout, whether it is the disruption caused by turnover in the senior team or the consequences of ill advised actions based on incomplete information. Avoiding these outcomes requires debate that recognizes different viewpoints, draws on the fullest range of data available, applies rigorous logic, and carefully weeds out prejudice and unsubstantiated opinion.
It is possible to gain substantially from a few simple good habits. These begin with the recognition that you have only a partial view which can be enriched by others’ perspectives, and that your behavior is probably contributing to the deadlock.
One executive I worked with had a habit of preceding most of his contributions to a debate with the expression “Yes, but … ” In his mind, this was a way of helping others see the limits of their thinking and adding important new insights to the discussion. In practice, his colleagues saw him as stubborn, argumentative and resistant to new ways of thinking. As a result, they were often dismissive of his contributions, which led him to try ever harder to get his point across. Once alerted to these unintended consequences of his behavior, the executive adopted a more constructive approach and was pleasantly surprised to discover that, as a result, his colleagues listened to him and engaged in open debate rather than blocking his contributions. Not surprisingly, the results included better dialogue and better decisions. And when one executive masters the techniques, many can follow.
Will it take a little longer to reveal to others how you draw your conclusions – or to ask others how they reached theirs? Of course. But it’s worth comparing this with the time spent locked in a standoff that leads to bad decisions – or no decisions at all.
Caroline Firstbrook The lead partner in Accenture’s Corporate Strategy practice for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, is based in London (www.accenture.com).
1. Overcoming Organizational Defences: Facilitating Organizational Learning, Chris Argyris (Prentice Hall, 1990).
2. “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge, Harvard Business Review, February, 2007.