As a leader, you want to lead your team and your business to success. That requires clarity into current situations, sound decision-making, and agile execution. Too often, leaders fall down on the very first requirement. Why? For one simple reason:
We see what we want to see.
It happens time and again, such as …
… when the head of business development is sure that a major customer is locked in despite a shift in order quantities. Then, he is shocked when that customer moves their business to a competitor.
… when a team member behaves in a toxic way but the manager does not want to admit the impact it is having on the department. Later, the manager is caught flat-footed by a “palace revolt” fueled by people’s pent-up anger and frustration.
… when a CEO is convinced that the company is making a solid profit, regardless of the red flags the accountant is waving. At the end of the year, the final numbers make for a very unpleasant investor meeting.
In each of these cases, there was evidence of problems – decreasing order quantities, unhappy personnel, black-and-white numbers. Yet the leaders did not act on the evidence. Why? Because they saw what they wanted to see.
It is easy to say, “I would never do that!” But that, in itself, is an example of seeing what you want to see. The truth is, we are all susceptible to self-deception. We all have a pair of rose-colored glasses that we put on regularly. We want things to go a certain way and so we interpret (or ignore) information so we can support our point of view and desired ends. At least until reality breaks in.
Smashing Your Rose-colored Glasses
The lure of seeing what we want to see is both subtle and pervasive. Overcoming it takes decisive, constant attention. Here are three ways to help achieve clarity into your current situations:
- Take a Clarity Break™. The Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS®) recommends that leaders take regular Clarity Breaks. A Clarity Break is when you set aside time to step outside the office – away from the pressures and problems, the emails and meetings – to think. During a Clarity Break, you have the space to ask questions such as, “What have I been hearing from our clients? My leadership team? Our employees?” or “Is there anything nagging at me that I have not been able to define?”
- Probe for understanding. People do not always share their concerns openly or clearly. For that reason, it is vital to ask questions and use techniques such as paraphrasing and reflecting to ensure that you really hear what a person is trying to tell you. For instance, a top salesperson might say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now.” If you see only what you want to see, you could assume that she is simply expressing concern about a tightened economy. But, if you probe for understanding, you might discover that she is on the verge of leaving the company because of an unresolved conflict with a coworker.
- Ask for input. The people around you can offer a wealth of helpful insights, perspectives, and opinions. Asking questions and really listening to the answers is a great way to get out of your own head. The more specific the questions you ask, the more specific (and valuable) the answers you will receive. For example, you might say at your next leadership meeting, “We’ve talked a lot recently about how well we are doing in this or that area, and shared achievements in each of our departments. But now, let’s get down to the tough stuff. What is not going well? Are you worried about anything? Where do we need to be on the alert? Let’s put some constructive feedback – dare I say, even criticism? – on the table so we can all take an honest look at it together.”
Rising to the Challenge Is Rewarding
In essence, the way to avoid seeing only what we want to see is to make the assumption that that is precisely what we are doing and continually challenge ourselves to see reality for what it is. It is a matter of making assessments – self-assessments, business assessments, employee assessments, financial assessments, customer assessments, etc. – a normal part of our leadership activities. To constantly ask, “Has something changed? Is anything different? Have I made any excuses, rationalizations, or justifications? Have I looked at data selectively? Am I really hearing the people around me?”
The better we get at gaining clarity, the better positioned we are to make decisions for the health and success of the business. We become more agile in all the best ways – able to do the right thing at the right time in the right way – so that we can turn even difficult circumstances into opportunities for growth.
We close with one of the best examples we have ever seen of a company refusing to see what they wanted to see, choosing instead to look reality in the eye:
It was March 2020. COVID-19 had just caused widespread shutdowns. The leadership team of a company that produced promotional products in large quantities sat down and took a hard look at the facts: nobody was going to be buying promotional products in a pandemic and there was no data to indicate how long the pandemic would last.
No rose-colored glasses. While other companies were taking a “wait and see” approach or hoping that the shutdowns would only last a month or two, this leadership team recognized that immediate action was imperative to keep their company viable.
In two days, the leadership team switched to sourcing masks. They did not spend days or weeks in discussion and decisioning: they literally assessed the situation, decided what to do, and started execution within 48 hours because they had their eyes open and knew that time was at a premium.
But there was more. The leadership team anticipated that other companies would soon jump on the mask bandwagon. At most, they estimated, they would get a six-month run on sourcing masks. So within one month, they had a plan in place to source additional products such as specialized masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). In that way, they ensured a continued revenue stream.
The end result? The pandemic shutdown, which could have killed their business, led to their best year ever in terms of revenue.
That is the reward you gain when you give up seeing what you want to see and choose to look at reality for what it truly is.