You Won't Know What You Don't Know Unless You Listen to Diverse Voices
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Have you ever shouted a warning to an actor in a movie when they’re about to fall unsuspectingly into a trap? The velociraptor hiding in the bushes. A bomb’s red LED clock counting down the seconds. A steel-jawed bear trap waiting to clamp down on an unwary hiker. We cringe in our seats watching a character fall into a preventable predicament -- even if it is fictional.
So, how do we warn people in real life? And what if the person about to fall victim is us? It happens to good leaders every day. Perhaps not as dramatically as that proverbial anvil falling on our head, but still with dire consequences to our personal and professional lives.
Yet, the truth is, we don’t see the trap. We miss the clues. We’re too busy to seek advice or we simply ignore someone telling us, “Hey wait. Watch out!” In short, we don’t know what we don’t know. That’s the story of all too many otherwise competent leaders, strong work teams and thriving companies that plummet, like Wile E. Coyote, right off the towering cliff.
Seeing unseen danger.
How can we protect ourselves against these unseen dangers? The first step is to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. Then, take steps to surround ourselves with people who bring a fresh, unique perspective. They’re the ones more likely to see the trap we’re about to walk into, and who are willing to sound the alarm -- if we let them.
Sure, good leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses. We know what we do well and then hire the best and brightest to bring their knowledge and expertise to the team. So, if we’re hiring a diversity of talent, ideas and experience why do we so often fail to listen -- or even ignore – those well-informed warnings?
As leaders our strength is being a generalist -- knowing a little about a lot and bringing together resources and talented folks. Yet, looking from our 30,000-foot vantage, leaders often mistake their talent for seeing everything with the mistaken notion that they understand everything. They take advice, process options and make decisions. It’s what they’re paid to do. But by owning the final “yes” in most decisions, executives often ignore those seemingly intrusive “maybes” or “how-abouts,” or the more emphatic warnings of “be careful” or “watch out.”
Senior executives can be blinded by a so-called decision bias. We laud leaders for being “decisive,” while we view leaders as weak if they take too much time to ask, to consider and, perhaps, “waste” time getting more information, insight and perspective. But running an organization is not like being a quiz show participant, rushing to hit the buzzer with the fastest answer. (In fact, it’s more like that TV game show where contestants get to ask for a “lifeline.”)
Finding out what you don’t know isn’t admitting you’re not smart or decisive. It’s a valued discipline that requires patience, depth and probing for ideas across your organization. Obviously, it shouldn’t be used as a tactic to avoid making decisions. In truth, it doesn’t have to take long at all. Once armed with the insghtful information, you can quickly make the smart decisions that have real meaning and impact for your organization, your people and your customers.
Surround yourself with diversity.
The old chestnut about “hiring people who are smarter than you,” is still good advice. You want and need people who are better at their jobs than you are. They can show you the pitfalls and sound those early alarm bells.
I’d add that good leaders need to surround themselves with a diversity of talent and ideas. And we need to define that diversity in the broadest possible terms. Unless we intentionally seek a broad and wide range of diverse perspectives, we can all fall victim to our own insular complacency. And that’s fatal.
Start with your own organization. Our mothers taught us to “look both ways” before crossing the street. I’d amend that to “look up and down” -- within your company. Those large employee meetings to launch new initiatives are great but try sitting down in the cafeteria with a couple of folks from accounting, or the loading dock. Seek out people who work with their hands as well as their brains. And next time you’re visiting a field operation, skip the management meeting and ask a service rep’ to take you on a customer call.
Diversity can also be found outside your company. Businesses may work with consultants to identify potential pitfalls. Corporate mentors, who coach up-and-coming talent, often provide insightful and vital feedback at critical decision points. In a healthy client/partner relationship, the trusted supplier can often fill this role because they know both the client’s business operation and key industry trends and challenges.
Diversity also means listening to people who come from many backgrounds, hold different life or career experiences, or have alternate ways of tackling a problem. It can also mean seeking out people who process information and ideas differently. There’s a growing trend for companies, including global leaders such as Microsoft, SAP and JPMorgan Chase, to pursue and cultivate neurodiverse talent by hiring and mentoring persons with atypical neurological conditions. These individuals, who may process experiences and information through new lenses, help companies see the problems -- and solutions -- that were hidden from everyone else. We are all wired differently and filter inputs according to our personal and professional experiences.
When leaders learn to assemble, seek input and consider options from a wide range of thinkers and perspectives, they’ll be more attuned to hear -- and act on -- those early warning signs. So next time someone shouts “watch out,” be ready to listen and react. You might just miss that plummeting anvil headed your way.