How to Find Your Blind Spots When You Don't Know What You're Looking For
What you don't know is slowing you down. Here's how to break through.
I learned the term “blind spot” while I was preparing to take my driving test in the U.S. It’s not a concept the DMV takes lightly: Not only are blind spots part of the written exam but failing to check over your shoulder for hidden hazards during the road test will also result in automatic failure.
Identifying your blind spots in a car is easy — a quick glance will reveal whatever your rearview mirror isn’t showing you. Finding them in other areas of your life is harder. After all, if we knew what are blind spots were, we’d likely have taken steps to address them.
The idea that we can’t know what we don’t know was brought to the fore in the 1950s when psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham created the Johari window. This window contains four quadrants, with two rows labeled “known to others” and “not known to others,” and two columns labeled “known to self” and “not known to self.” The box that corresponds with “known to others” but “not known to self” is, of course, where our blind spots lie.
But blind spots don’t have to elude us forever. Here are a few ways to get some of the unknown unknowns into view.
Expand your horizons
One of the surefire ways to miss your blind spots is to only seek out information that confirms your existing beliefs or ideas. This is what’s known as confirmation bias, and it can severely limit your field of vision.
Seeking diverse perspectives can be incredibly helpful for expanding your awareness. This can come in many forms, be it reading a wide variety of books, magazines and websites; attending conferences or even making time for discussions with people who do things differently than you.
Each month, I meet up with the founder of a successful task management app to discuss our approaches to running our businesses. Our management styles are pretty dissimilar: For one thing, his workforce is 100 percent remote, and he’s executed it in a very different way than I have with my team at Jotform. But just because we don’t have the same exact leadership style doesn’t mean we don’t have things to teach each other. If I restricted myself to only interacting with other founders who do things like I do, I’d learn much less.
Don’t just limit yourself to people within your industry, either. Data people, in particular, might find inspiration from those who are more creative or free-form in their thinking, Cymulate’s chief strategy officer Andrew Barnett tells Forbes. “For myself at a Big 4 firm in cybersecurity, I've received great insights from talking to leaders in marketing and at startups,” he explains. “They've given me different perspectives, enriching my approach.”
Bring in professionals
In 1875, eternal rivals Harvard and Yale played one of the first-ever football games following American rules. Yale had hired a coach. Harvard had not. Over the next 40 years, Harvard won only four games. Eventually, Harvard hired a coach.
This anecdote comes from a 2017 TED Talk delivered by surgeon and public health expert Atul Gawande, in which he explains that there’s virtually no profession — his own included — that can’t benefit from the help of a coach. “Turns out there are numerous problems in making it on your own,” he says. “You don't recognize the issues that are standing in your way or if you do, you don't necessarily know how to fix them. And the result is that somewhere along the way, you stop improving.”
As a leader, you might be concerned that a coach will be an unnecessary burden. That was a fear expressed by Success With Less author and Salesforce executive Karen Mangia, who was worried she’d be slowed down. But that didn’t happen. "Instead of introducing new obligations, my coach helped me to see how I could handle my role differently," Mangia explains. "I was resistant at first, but ultimately I was so glad I didn't have to go it alone."
Seek the truth
A good performer accepts feedback when it’s offered, but a great performer actively seeks it out. While most of us would prefer to assume that everything is going perfectly as long as we haven’t heard anything to the contrary, the reality is that this mentality won’t help you grow.
As Adam Mendler of The Veloz Group put it, “Many people in positions of authority enjoy the comfort of yes-men validating their every move. However, a team of sycophants will inhibit one's development, growth and success. All leaders need people around them willing and able to tell even hard truths.”
People naturally have a self-serving bias, in which they view their abilities as the cause of their successes, but blame their failures on external factors. In order to overcome it, start by asking those close to you what they see in your behaviors, and how, from their perspective, you can improve.
When you do get feedback, keep yourself from getting defensive. Instead, listen carefully and ask follow-up questions until you’re sure you understand what they’re saying. And whatever the feedback is, make sure you don’t conflate the behavior with who you are. For example, if someone says you tend to interrupt, it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of listening or a terrible person. It just means you have a certain habit that’s keeping you from unlocking your full potential.
You can also take a critical inventory of your performance on your own, writes Victoria Song, an author and leadership advisor. At the end of each week, ask yourself what your major time wasters were, and what you can do about them going forward. What support do you need? What accomplishments are you most proud of? Use this information to adjust your modus operandi. “You can't track what you don't measure. And you can't improve what you don't track,” Song concludes.
Everyone has blind spots. No matter how hard we try, some will remain hidden from view forever. But following these steps will ensure you catch the important ones, affording you a clearer view than you thought possible.
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