An executive I know believes that leadership, all said, is simply about making better decisions than your competition. When I asked him how people can best develop this capability, he answered, "Make a lot of bad decisions that don't kill you."
The fact that good judgment is built on bad judgment means that you learn primarily as result of your experiences—particularly your mistakes. Over time, you develop better judgment as you live with the outcomes of your choices. You also observe other leaders and extract lessons from their successes and failures. The full truth, however, is that experience is no panacea. Even the most talented and best prepared leaders face complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable challenges.
In particular, leaders often are forced to make decisions with flawed or incomplete information and, more importantly, often don't know that is the case—creating what I call blind spots. One way of avoiding blind spots is to create a culture within a company that promotes straight talk about problems and concerns. It's also important, though, for leaders to recognize subtle warning signs of problems or concerns that people don't, for whatever reason, surface directly.
There are five ways for a leader to develop what I call peripheral vision and, in so doing, improve their ability to make effective decisions:
As a senior leader you need to get to know your team in depth in order to interpret the subtleties of their behavior. Differences in their decision-making and influence styles are particularly important. Some team members, for example, are comfortable with letting events unfold, while others prefer to resolve issues quickly. Similarly, some like to collect and analyze reams of data before making a decision, while others rely more on their intuition.
Knowing how to read team members means not only being aware of their tendencies but also of any deviations from their typical approach. For example, if an individual who is inclined to examine every side of an issue before making a decision suddenly appears to see only one side of an argument, you need to understand why that is.
You must also be aware of your own dominant style and how it influences decision making in the team. You may, for example, value efficiency and conduct meetings in a disciplined manner, and accordingly dislike people who go off on tangents or express views that are not supported by sound analysis and data. In such situations, people are likely to be less forthcoming in expressing their views.
You might then want to allocate more time for discussion on particular topics or use specific in-meeting techniques to elicit people's views, such as asking each of them to weigh in on the topic being debated. You might also want to follow-up with individuals after a team meeting to give them the opportunity to more fully discuss any concerns they may have.
Aside from being aware of your and your team's specific styles, you need to be aware of subtle clues that may suggest people are not expressing what they really think. There are a variety of warning signals you should watch for, take note of, and investigate further if appropriate. Among the most important of these are:
- Nonverbal behaviors, such as eye rolling
- Omissions, which are the important areas that are simply not surfaced or discussed
- Silence, which may indicate an unwillingness to take a contrary position
- Non-answers, such as when an individual is obviously being intentionally evasive
- Off-line input, which are comments made to the leader or others during breaks or in other informal conversations.
Seeing any of these behaviors requires a senior leader to answer two questions:
- Does the potential issue warrant further analysis or discussion, or is it simply noise that should be ignored?
- If the issue is significant, what is the best way to obtain the necessary data and input?
Unfortunately, there is no set of guidelines to answer these questions, and as a leader you often must use your intuition to determine the answers.
Most companies need formal or informal mechanisms to encourage views that differ from the dominant culture or prevailing point of view on any given issue. As a leader you need to encourage these viewpoints, particularly where key decisions are concerned.
Although there are several different approaches available, it is important that you select those that are most in keeping with your organization's culture. One of the most effective of these is roundtable discussions, in which the leader asks a pertinent question and allows for a general discussion, with active give and take among the members.
Another method—applicable in group or one-on-one meetings—is to simply allow silence to enter the conversation. Most leaders believe they need to move issues forward as quickly as possible, and do not allow for such silences. If, however, you ask people simply and directly what they think, and give them time to answer, they will be more likely to tell you what's on their minds.
It is also, however, advisable to follow up team meetings with one-on-one discussions with particular individuals, primarily because people tend to be more open when meeting privately with a senior leader than they are in a group meeting.
Mark Ronald, former CEO of BAE Systems, Inc. used an approach he called the three-strike rule to give those with concerns about a particular decision the opportunity to advance their recommendations. Not every business issue needs to be resolved immediately, and granting more time often serves to clarify positions and bring fresh viewpoints or data to the discussion. If all those concerned are given three opportunities for a hearing by the leader and his or her team, the leader makes it clear that he or she is open to other opinions.
Each time the same issue is raised, however, the individual advocating the position has to either present new data or analysis or cultivate further support from those who were either not present or supportive in earlier discussions. It must be understood, however, that once a decision is made all dissenting members are expected to join the majority and support that decision.
Many leaders have healthy egos, are invested in being seen as decisive, and are action oriented. Such individuals tend to have limited patience with people who belabor the obvious or take too long to get to the point, and often cut people off and finish their sentences.
Some, however, learn over time that one of the most effective ways of avoiding blind spots is simply learning to listen. If instead of focusing strictly on making a decision your primary goal is understanding what others are telling you, the decision you make will inevitably be a more informed and better one. In conducting such data-gathering sessions, it is essential that you hide your biases and simply work to get the information you want.
At the same time, you need to be tenacious and ask the same questions repeatedly if people provide evasive responses. It can also help if you repeat back to individuals, in your own words, what you heard from them, to make sure that your understanding is accurate. Doing so will also enable you to obtain more detail as the person with whom you are speaking responds to your question.
—Robert Bruce Shaw is the author of Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter, and works with senior executives on the management of strategic organizational change and leadership development.