Leaders are particularly susceptible to psychological blind spots, which impair our decision making and impact our organizations. We spoke to DEI expert Ashley Gaddy, Director of Business Development & Marketing at Cook Ross, about how our blind spots evolve, and how to increase visibility. Chief members can listen to the full conversation here.

Q. How would you define blind spots, especially in the context of leadership?

AG: We all have different identities that shape how we see the world — child of immigrants, Black woman, Jewish woman, mother of boys, Gen X. Our identities allow us to make meaning of information, but they also cause us to gloss over information that's important, but personally irrelevant. Blind spots are cognitive biases in how we see the world and others — and they result in a systemic failure to see information that is key to making informed decisions in our personal and professional lives. Blind spots are related to bound awareness, which is the common tendency to exclude important and relevant information by placing arbitrary or dysfunctional bounds around the definition of a problem. When making a decision, we could think we're looking at the full picture, but only see factors like profit and the bottom line.

The truth is that we are all good people with good intentions, and our desired behavior is usually to do good. But that doesn't obscure the reality that our blind spots are making us less informed. The intersection of identity, power dynamics, and privilege also plays a role here. There are certain realities that we're not going to be able to experience or clearly see simply because of our identities. And if we hold an identity that is part of a dominant group within a power dynamic, our blind spots may be more damaging, and less obvious.

Q. How are blind spots created, and why do they persist?

AG: Blind spots are created when decision makers limit their analysis to the data in the room, and move too quickly with readily available information rather than seeking what data would be relevant to answer the question on the table, and how the decision affects other aspects of the business. Approximately 75% of our brain functions through immediate memory, or our automatic brain. Your automatic brain is working when you get in the car and arrive at your destination — but you don’t remember how you got there. The further back events exist in our automatic brain, the less we tend to focus on them. When engaging in behaviors that use our deliberate brain, such as learning how to drive, we tend to slow down and be hyper conscious.

But the longer we do something, the more we start engaging in behaviors without thinking about them. That’s how blind spots are created. This is extremely relevant for people in leadership positions, because something you may have been very aware of in your entry level position is probably now in your automatic brain. We have to think about the aspects of our lives that are no longer in our deliberate brain, and how they impact our decision making processes.

Q. What are some effective strategies for making our blind spots more visible and narrowing the gaps?

AG: It starts with unlearning. Spend daily reflection time with your deliberate brain. That means just pausing to say, “Let me think about what I'm doing. Let me think about what other relevant information is needed for this decision.” You should also anticipate your "want self” when you’re making decisions. Focus on the motivations that are likely to arise and dominate the decision — like profit or speed. When you think about those motivations, you can anticipate how your self interests will create blind spots. And then you have to counter your assumptions. Ask yourself, “What information am I missing? What else could be true in this scenario?” This enables us to make better decisions.

After you start unlearning, you have to start relearning. Change your patterns to activate your deliberate brain. For me, this sometimes means just changing my scenery and leaving the apartment to go work outside. It could also mean changing the ways you show up in your organization. If you normally don’t take a team member out to lunch, do so. Ask your office manager what they think about a decision or a policy. Seek different perspectives. Because the more we understand how other people see the world, the more we can mitigate bias and break down our blind spots. And lastly, you need to place power properly. When you have the power, you’re not always able to see the full picture. Give someone with less power the tools to be seen and valued. Or leverage your power to be an effective ally and advocate. The beauty of blind spots is that when they’re brought to our attention, we can always see them, manage them, and work towards better outcomes. But it’s a journey. You’re not going to mitigate all of your biases tomorrow. So stay consistent. Unlearn, relearn, repeat.

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Originally Published: August 24, 2020