Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Optimal Margin of Illusion

Guest post from Robert Bruce Shaw:

Research into the psychology of leadership highlights the benefit of being more confident than you should be. That is, it helps to believe you're better than you are, and be more optimistic about your company and business, than an entirely objective analysis would warrant. This kind of positive bias is useful because it increases your motivation to move forward in risky situations, and to persevere when you're faced with difficulties. Overconfidence, all things being equal, tends to make you -- and those around you -- behave in ways that are more likely to result in a positive outcome.
There is a danger, of course, when confidence becomes too detached from reality, and results in certain blindspots -- that is, unrecognized weaknesses or threats that have the potential to undermine your success. It's important to be aware of these blindspots because they expose you and your company to a variety of risks. The challenge, then, is to strike a productive balance between the confidence you need to be successful and the doubt you need to identify and address the weaknesses that matter. When you strike the right balance, you have developed what some call the "Optimal Margin of Illusion."

Sustaining this balance is not easy as you can easily fall off in one direction or the other -- either having too much or too little confidence, too much or too little doubt. The key to success is developing techniques that enable you to recognize and address your blindspots without eroding your confidence. Approaches for identifying and overcoming blindspots include the following:
·        See It for Yourself. One of the pitfalls leaders in large organizations face is losing touch with their customers and employees as they move up in their companies. As a result, they can easily make inaccurate assumptions simply because of the distance between their day–to-day experiences and what is really going on in their firms. For that reason, you should strive to have regular, ongoing, direct contact with your customers, your front-line employees, and even your competitors.
·        Seek Out Disconfirming Data. Leaders will sometimes seek out data that confirms their own beliefs and discount or ignore contradictory information. In order to avoid this, you should establish metrics for assessing your assumptions about what is occurring around you. You also need metrics and review processes that provide you with accurate data and keep you from being overly optimistic or biased in your perceptions.
·        Develop Peripheral Vision. Savvy leaders have the ability to recognize subtle signs of potential problems and understand which are worthy of their attention and follow-up. To do so, you have to learn how to "read between the lines" of what people say, or don't say, in meetings, and be able to see wherever there are gaps, or hidden issues, in the data presented by those who report to you. Developing an understanding of what questions to ask and when to ask them is an important skill for leaders seeking to avoid blindspots. 
·        Rely on Trusted Advisors. Recognizing our own blindspots sometimes requires us to get feedback from others who have insights that we may lack. In order to accomplish this, it's advisable for you to develop a trusted cohort of people who will offer you specific and honest feedback in targeted areas. For example, you may need someone who can challenge your thinking in regard to your firm's strategy or a different person who does the same in regard to talent within your organization. You don't necessarily have to act on the feedback, but it's important that you understand the views of others in support or opposition to your own thinking.
·        Promote Productive Fights. The British philosopher David Hume once wrote that "Truth springs from arguments among friends." As a leader, then, it is to your advantage to have a team of individuals with whom you can test your ideas and discuss potential problems. In developing this team, however, it is essential that you make sure it's comprised of individuals who respect each other but are also willing to disagree in order to achieve the best outcomes for the organization. It is equally important that the members of the group have diverse views, because when everyone thinks alike there are few areas for disagreement and debate, and the potential benefits of having a team are thus diminished.
The above approaches will help you identify and manage the blindspots that all of us have. The goal is to find the "Optimal Margin of Illusion", which enables you to strike the right balance between confidence and doubt. That is, it will provide you with enough illusion to create hope and sustain confidence, in yourself as well as in your team, without blinding you to the reality of the risks and challenges you must face every day.

Author Bio:
Robert Bruce Shaw
, author of Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter, works with senior executives on the management of strategic organizational change and leadership development. His clients span a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals, animal health, financial services, telecommunications, industrial products, defense, power utilities, technology and consumer goods. Robert holds a Ph.D. degree in organizational behavior from Yale University. More about Robert, his work, and his new book can be found at

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