As a leader, it’s obviously important that you notice what’s happening around you. But, actually, how much do you think you may miss or, if you are honest, might you choose to ignore or ‘avoid’ noticing? And what can leaders do to ensure they do notice better?
The truth is, in today’s busy world, humans can’t pay attention to everything they see or notice around them: the capacity of the human brain simply couldn’t cope! So, in order to cope, humans have to make constant choices about what to notice: a process called ‘selective attention‘. Choices can be conscious but, much more often, are unconscious – with our conscious mind only picking up something when our unconscious system diverts it to attend to something unusual, exceptional or threating in some way.
Crucially, of course, noticing is not just about perceiving something but also perceiving accurately and then interpreting and deciding how to act or think in response (most of the time, actually, our responses are handled quite simply by our unconscious brain without our ever realizing). Unfortunately, sometime people choose deliberately to ‘not notice’, or they choose to notice only reluctantly, or they notice or judge something in a biased way. Where people deliberately choose to ignore or not readily accept something that is clearly evident or true, this is sometimes called ‘motivated’ or ‘wilful’ blindness.
In organisations, there is a whole gamut of reasons why people may not be good noticers. Here’s an overview of some of those reasons, before I go on to suggest some specific measures leaders can take to help improve the quality of noticing.
Difficult things to notice
The difficulty with noticing starts with how some things are simply, themselves, more difficult for people to ‘see’ or interpret than other things. For leaders, of course, ‘things’ that they need to notice are not so much about tangible items but more about events, changes, trends, pressures and developments – both inside and external to their organisations. Obvious features that can make such noticing more difficult are: where the issue is complex or complicated; the issue takes time to develop or become clear enough to interpret (e.g. a new trend in technology); it is imprecise; it is too novel or unexpected that it goes unrecognised; the issue is unstable or too variable; it is difficult to isolate or disconnect from another issue; it is too costly, impractical or faraway to notice well or easily (e.g. actions of an overseas competitor); or the issue is so slight or meagre that it canot be easily recognised.
Individuals’ weaknesses and biases
Humans as individuals have many potential traits that may hinder good noticing. A basic need, for example, is at least a basic level of general intelligence and cognitive alertness, but people different in such qualities, of course, – as they do with other relevant traits like attention to detail and ease with complexity. To notice specific things, a person also needs appropriate opportunity, time, means and place, without the distraction of a negative or anxious mood (state of mind) or significant environmental distractions. And, certainly, of course, if a person has limited interest in or knowledge of a specific topic, he/she will typically be less disposed to noticing if/when something around that topic turns up.
Noticing is also heavily infleunced by various natural ‘filters’ (quirks) in the process of human attention and perception: for example, unless something is unusual, unexpected, or stands out in some way, most things around us simply get nowhere near our conscious awareness. And another example is that, based on what past experience has led it to expect, our brain often automatically adds or ‘fills in’ bits of an image where only a partical image has been seen, with the possibility that that that ‘expectation’ may be erroneous and thus lead to an inaccurate perception.
When an individual does notice something, a crucial point is that what exactly he/she perceives will very likely differ from what others perceive about the same thing. This is because what an individual perceives about anything is based not only what one’s sensory organs pick up from external stimuli but also on what interpretation inside one’s brain those external stimuli make. That internal interpretation involves relating (usually subconsciouly) the stimului to one’s own personal past memories, existing mental representations and values and beliefs: as we are all very different from each other in these respects, the result naturally is that we make unique decisions and judgements about external subjects.
Another crucial point about individuals’ approach to noticing is the large distorting role that various ‘cognitive biases‘ can play i.e. (mostly) non-conscious quirks in how the mind naturally preceives or prcesses information. Examples of common biases include: ‘negativity avoidance‘ – a wish to avoid observations which create personal discomfort, negative emotions or the need to face up to a difficult or undesired situation; ‘representativness bias‘ (readily seeing individuals or things as belongoing to a particular group or stereotype category and assuming they have similar characteristics); ‘confirmation bias’ (only noticing things that accord with one’s existing beliefs and ignoring evidence that does not0; ‘availability bias’ (making a judgement based on information that comes to mind most quickly); and ‘anchoring bias‘ (relying too much on an initial piece of information when making a judgement)..
Issues at group level
When individuals come together in groups, this can bring potential benefits but, equally, extra risks concerning the quality of noticing. It is easy to think that having several people together will readily mean that more things can be noticed overall or that things will be intepreted more accurately – simply because there are more ‘eyes and ears’ and the group will compensate for and ‘balance-out’ individuals’ personal biases. Although these benefits may be enjoyed, their effect can be thwarted by additional ‘in-group’ influences that can compound individuals’ biases or create additional types of problem.
These issues with groups can include, for example: ‘groupthink‘ – individuals not mentioning observations or points of view because they do not want to lose the approval of other group members; ‘shared information‘ bias – the tendency in groups for members to focus on information that is already known to all group members, rather than raising new/un-shared points; ‘cascading‘ – the tendency sometimes for group members to echo the observations or statements of those who speak first in the group; ‘domineering‘ – the similar tendency for some group members to echo the points of other members who are more expert or appear more more confident; and ‘group polarisation‘ – the tendency for group members who are very similar to each other in their views or characteristics to increase the stregnth of their existing beliefs and become more closed-minded.
Issues at organisational and sector level
Some of the issues at group level also apply – but on a larger scale – where different groups come together at an organisational level (or sub-organisational level e.g. an operating division). In particular, there’s the issue of what I call ‘organisational groupthink‘ – people across an organisation tending to see or view many things in the same (biased) way or choosing not to raise different observatons or opinions – including about what’s happening inside or outside an organisation.
Many factors can contribute to such groupthink, of course, including: declared statements of an organisation’s values; particular long-held assumptions or beliefs about a company’s market and how it should compete; formal strategy documents or plans; the particular opinions expressed by senior managers; and particular organisational traits e.g. a culture that is very hierarchical and avoids widespread circulation of information or does not encourage employees to speak up. The negative consequences can easily be that employees become less alert and attentive to spotting things going on around them, they miss things completely, or they see or interpret things inaccurately or with distorted fileters, and therefore the overall quality of thinking and innovation suffers for the whole organisation.
What people in organisations see, or how they judge things, can also be influenced by what are seen as popular (or usual) perspectives, norms or beliefs held at an industry or sector level. Most industries, trades and professions tend to develop over the years particular views about what is right or wrong or appropriate and this exerts ‘peer’ influence over individual companies. Peer influence can also operate across sectors in some respects: for example, amongst listed FTSE 100 companies, it is widely assumed that CEOs’ pay packages should be based on a combination of core salary and longer-term share options.
So, what can be done to limit leadership blindness? Here are 10 useful actions for leaders:
i) Promote an outward-facing, enquiring mindset amongst employees: To be good at noticing, a person must start by fundamentally adopting a conscious mindset that emphasizes seeing what’s around them objectively and accurately, rather than letting their unconscious biases (see above) and self-interest lead them to see things as they would like to see things (so they can continue to feel good about themselves or protect their existing beliefs). The term ‘scout mindset‘ was used by author Julia Galef to refer to the former approach in her book of the same title (2021), in contrast to a ‘soldier mindset‘ which she used to refer to people’s standard mindset of seeing things in a biased, self-motivated way. Leaders need to promote a scout mindset across their organisation, but it’s actually a very difficult thing to do – simply because a soldier mindset is the natural, default approach of humans!
Other related qualities of a scout mindset, as well as a concrn for accuracy and truth, include: being curious; having a passion for learning; listening carefully to others when they explain their different opinions; mixing with people who share different views to your own; keeping a degree of sceptimism; and – crucially – being ready to update or alter one’s existing beliefs or opinions in the light of new facts or better arguments or insight.
ii) Look out for soft, weak or ambiguous factors, not just ‘hard’ or obvious facts: Being a good noticer means being attentive to ‘soft’ observations (e.g. people’s feelings, an abstract idea, a weak signal of change in a trend), not just noticing easy-to-see or obvious things. To do this, individuals need to avoid a mindset which is always logical or methodical in stance and instead, sometimes, be more open, relaxed, and even playful in attitude. Equally, noticing well also means allowing for the various ‘quirks’ involved in human attention and perception (as mentioned above) and deliberately looking harder and more fully at what is first noticed by applying wider thinking modes like ‘holistic’ (systems) thinking and ‘peripheral’ thinking (looking at the outer ‘edges’ of a situation and adjoining influences).
iii) Use the right people to notice in particular areas: It obviously makes senese that more is likely to be noticed – together with a more accurate or enlightened interpretation – if individuals doing the noticing have a good/appropriate level of knowledge or experience concerning the subject in question. So, wherever possible – certainly for focussed intelligence-gathering – use people who have relevant expertise, but don’t always rely completely on experts as sometimes they can be too entrenched in their fixed views. For broader purposes, try to involve people who are ‘outsiders’ to your in-house or usual team, as they are likely to come with a fresher, more open-minded perspective.
iv) Use a mix of thinking modes to interpret, assess and gain insights: Just as a combination of analytical and open/relaxed mindsets can be helpful for observing, so it is similarly valuable to adapt one’s thinking approach for going on to making actual inferences adn judgements about what is noticed. One very useful thinking mode is ‘critical thinking‘, which involves assessing the robustness and truth of factors by applying fact and logical reasoning. Another very useful type of thinking is ‘creative thinking’, whose various methods and techniques are powerful for helping to imagine possible implications and making conclusions from what is noticed.
v) Use robust intelligence systems and research to back up indivdiuals’ efforts: Don’t just rely on ad-hoc noticing and sharing by individuals of observations: instead, use technology and good data processes to help identify, capture, analyse, assess and report information – from scannng external news and industry media to recording and analysing internal data like customer feedback and sales statistics. A key element in intelligence systems, of course, is the provision of regular, systematic collations and assessment of latest data for senior management. Alongside ongoing intelligence, do, where useful, organise dedicated research studies to explore selected issues (e.g. new buying patterns by customers) in more depth.
With an intelligence system, aim to be systematic and rigorous in how you capture and process data, of course, but I would advise don’t be too zealous in the following respects: double-checking everything in fine detail; documenting all sources in great detail; insisting on being completely certain or having undoubted evidnce about everything; listing all assumptions made when assessing data; and seeking to be fully exact and precise with all data (including estimates or forecasts). Intelligence – particularly the assessment aspect – is not an exact science: it’s more valuable normally to at least acknowledge something roughly or as a possibility than only to note things for which you have full, confirmed detail.
vi) Promote strong, open communications in your organisation, with ‘straight-talking’: Ensure information flows easily and widely across your organisation, that staff meet often and easily with each other from different parts of the organisation to share and discuss, and that everyone is encouraged to raise anything on their minds. For their part, leaders themselves should avoid glossing over, covering up or hiding away from uncomfortable news or facts. Such openness of communication is vital for both motivating individuals to notice better and, at the same time, helping them identify connections and implications from what they notice.
vii) Ensure a learning, flexible organisation that is change-oriented: Ensure your organisation is designed to support, not hinder, responsiveness to change. So, for example, avoid a complex and hierarchical structure, keep processes as clear and simple as possible, make people’s jobs flexible, make extensive use of multi-functional and project teams, and use agile and fast product development methods. Additionally, ensure a culture that values learning, change, personal develpment, innovation and sharing ideas and insights. As reinforcement, make sure your policies for incentivising, rewarding and recognising staff are appropriate and effective. And ensure all managers emphasize a long-term mindset and perspective in how they approach their work i.e. they naturally look, think and prepare ahead in what they do, rather than wait for a crisis to happen to jolt them into making changes.
viii) Allow for the ‘in-group biases that can trap teams and groups: Useful steps to take include: ensure there is an open, respectful and ‘safe’ feeling in the group where memebrs feel they can speak up freely; use a diverse group rather than a homogenous group (more likely to notice more things and individuals’ biases will balance many of each other’s out to an extent); get members to reveal their points privately and independently of each other with the leader, if some points are likely to be contentious; avoid group members giving immediate comment on colleagues’ views until all points have been disclosed; and avoid the leader giving his/her views until everyone else has spoken.
ix) Encourage leaders and managers to allocated dedicated time for ‘thinking‘: Noticing well is more difficult for managers when they are in ‘execution’ mode i.e. focussing on day-to-day operational and tactical issues. Since most managers spend most of their time in this mode, a wise approach is that they schedule in their diaries regular, dedicated time slots to ‘step back’ from the day-to-day and focus instead on reflecting and doing some ‘strategic’ thinking. This is typically best achieved by removing oneself to a quiet space somewhere where there are no interruptions and adopting a relaxed and ‘open’ mindset. These thinking sessions will typically lead to developing several new observations, thoughts and ideas.
x) Foster good breadth of experience in leaders and managers: To further help managers’ ability at noticing, it’s important to keep developing and broadening their knowledge, experiences and perspectives. Thsi can be done particulally by developing and widening their experience in relation to their job and the range of people and situations they come across. Examples of key methods include: handling of different assignments and projects; participation in cross-fucntional teams or projects; rotation across a variety of jobs; spending time often on the ‘front-line; meeting with customers or directly handling customer queries/service taks; periodic contact with other stakeholders; and attendance at industry or other external events/conferences.
Remember, overall, humans are not perfect noticers: missing things is a natural, understandable attribute of everyone. I outlined above many reasons whay this is so, together with some of the problems that can follow. I hope, however, that some of the measures I suggest above can help leaders and managers mitigate for some of those problems.