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
 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.
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
 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.
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