Last week, a CEO pulled me aside to tell me that a member of his team—call him Allen—was stirring up trouble. Bob, the CEO, was furious. His top group had just hammered out a three-year strategic plan, which Allen said he’d support. But now Allen was raising basic doubts about it with his team and criticizing Bob’s leadership.
The problem, Bob explained, was that Allen lacked integrity. He was trying to protect his unit. He was a liar. He wasn’t trustworthy.
In arriving at this explanation, Bob is doing what cognitive psychologists say we all do. He is focusing on what he can see—Allen’s behavior—and he’s looking for the cause of that behavior inside of Allen: at his motives and character. Once Bob formulates the problem in this way, his options are few: fire Allen and lose his connections and institutional knowledge, or find some way to manage or work around him.
What Bob doesn’t see is what we all fail to see: that the problem resides not only in Allen, but in the nature of their relationship. The two of them have together created a relationship that is actually encouraging Allen to say one thing, then do another.
It happens every day and creates untold costs, but we just don’t see it. The reason is simple: Even though it takes two to build a relationship, each person sees only half the picture.
As the diagram outlines, Bob can see that Allen isn’t directly raising his doubts and that this makes him (Bob) furious.
But what Bob can’t see so easily—what is far less salient—is what he himself is doing. It doesn’t occur to him that he rarely pressure-tests his ideas with his top group, that he’s quick to discount their concerns, that he downplays ideas different from his own, and so on.
Similarly, unless Bob asks Allen and Allen tells him, Bob can’t see how Allen is reacting to what he’s doing.
All of that is invisible to him. All Bob sees is Allen and Allen’s impact on him. He can’t see himself or his impact on Allen as easily.
This asymmetric awareness is a recipe for people blaming each other and for assuming that individuals alone are the root cause of our troubles, not the relationships we’re building with them.
Even worse, it’s a recipe for losing purchase on the things we can control: what we ourselves are doing to create relationships that adversely affect us and our organizations.
To get out of this trap, we need to see our blind spots. Only then can we begin to see what the other person sees. How can we do that? Stay tuned to find out.