I had lunch with a former colleague recently. I’m calling her Trish to protect her privacy, but the truth is, it’s unlikly she’ll recognize herself in this story. But I’m not giving up hope just yet.
Trish spent most of the lunch hour forcefully poking her salad, looking around the restaurant for “anyone from the office”, and complaining that her staff wasn’t taking advantage of her new (and much-publicized) open door policy.
To demonstrate her sincerity, she had established “open door hours” each Wednesday from ten to noon. But for the past six weeks, not one member of her staff came through her open door. Trish could not understand why.
“Isn’t that what they wanted?” she protested.
Why were the same people who torpedoed her otherwise positive annual review with a torrent of ones and twos for “Effectively communicates upward, downward, and laterally,” not standing in line at her now very strategically open door?
There is a reason they call them blind spots
Having worked alongside Trish for a few years and observed her management style up-close, I searched for a way to constructively help her uncover her leadership blind spot.
“Have you ever asked anyone what ‘effectively communicates upward, downward, and laterally’ means to them?”, I asked.
My question seemed to insult her. “That’s really not that hard to figure out,” she retorted, taking the topic off the table while aptly demonstrating the exact problem she was trying to solve.
What I knew, and she was unable to see, was that her inability to even consider what that statement might have meant to others was one of the reasons she had racked up all the ones and twos.
Her team wasn’t looking for more accessibility. They were looking for humble curiosity. An open mind rather than an open door.
Trish didn’t have a problem communicating. She was a good listener and could easily tell others what was on her mind. What she wasn’t great at was actively considering and exploring other people’s perspectives and ideas.
When other’s made suggestions or asked questions, she saw it as a personal challenge. Typically met with either dismissiveness (“That’s not going to be an issue.”) or defensiveness (“Of course, I know that!”).
To be clear, Trish is not a bully. She’s personable, often funny, and willing to jump in and save the day at the first sign of trouble. She treats everyone with professional courtesy, sometimes closing her meetings with, “thoughts or questions before we go?” It should, however, be a red flag to her, that her team seldom responds. Silence does not necessarily mean agreement.
Humility (or a lack thereof) is a blind spot for many leaders. Especially those who have achieved success through self-promotion or who have had to claw or compete their way to the top.
Like most blind spots, a lack of humility affects both the team and the leader in a variety of ways, among the most obvious:
- Closes leaders off to the benefits of continued learning.
- Suppresses bold ideas and disparate perspectives
- Creates obstacles to collaboration and innovation
- Stunts individual growth in team members
- Breaks down trust in teams
A common myth is that a lack of humility manifests itself as arrogance, but that’s not always the case. Patrick Lencioni has done considerable work in this space and has given us a broader view in his book, The Ideal Team Player. Lencioni tells us that these types of leaders come in two sizes.
“overtly arrogant people who make everything about them and people who lack self-confidence but are generous and positive with others.”
To further complicate things, a lack of humility can also breed or mask a variety of other blind spots.
In his popular 2014 book, Leadership blind spots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter, Author, Robert Bruce Shaw explains the often complicated role of blind spots in a leader’s success.
“The role played by blind spots is to mediate between the poles of self-confidence and self-doubt. A leader with too many blind spots can be overconfident, even blindly arrogant, and exposed to a range of risks. In contrast, a leader with too few blind spots may be too realistic and overwhelmed by the very real obstacles ahead.”
Suspect Humility might be your blind spot? Here are some things you can do.
Change the questions you ask your team
Rather than asking questions intended to validate or confirm what you already know, ask questions to learn what others know, like:
- What are we missing?
- What haven’t we already thought about?
- How else might we look at this?
Want to turn the humility dial up to ten? Try asking, “What could go wrong if we don’t change how we’re doing it today?”
Intentionally seek ideas from individual team members rather than with a cattle call approach.
Old way: Any ideas, suggestions or comments?
New way: Ted, what membership benefit do you think we should offer next year that we’re not already offering?
Dig deeper into why
Don’t assume that you already know why someone says or feels something. Ask them. Not as a challenge, but from a place of real curiosity. Simple statements like, “Help me understand..." and "Tell me why you feel that way." show genuine empathy and interest in the other person.
Learn something from someone you manage
No one expects you to know or do everything. If you did, what value would others be to the organization? Take an honest look at your skillset. Would it be helpful if you knew more about how your database is set-up? How the events team selects speakers? Why the coffee always tastes better when someone else is making it? Let yourself learn from others. You’ll both benefit.
Wondering if you have a leadership blind spot and what you can do about it? Check out John Maxwell’s helpful series of podcasts and downloadable worksheet.
Want to learn more about how to be a humble leader? Here’s an excellent place to start.