Have you ever gone to a movie when the theater was packed and you scanned the theater for open seats? You finally find them and take your seats. After the movie, you run into some friends who happened to be at the same show. They said they had two seats next to them and were waving at you when you came in, but you did not seem them? Or perhaps you were watching your favorite sports team on TV and you did not notice your significant other asking for your help. Have you ever been so focused on something that you missed what was going on around you?

This phenomenon is called innattentional blindness, and was first discovered by Ulric Niesser, known as the “father of cognitive psychology”, at Cornell University in the 1970’s. It is also known as perceptual blindness and occurs when an individual fails to perceive or recognize an unplanned stimulus clearly in their field of vision. When we are focused on something specific, it is possible to miss other plainly visible details that may appear.

Niesser’s experiments gained interest and popularity in the following decades. Harvard Psychologists, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris tested his experiments further. Their findings are reported in their article, Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. The research points out we are missing a great deal of what is happening all around us. They have since written a book about their findings, The Invisible Gorilla.

When I first saw the monkey business video, I was focusing on a specific task and I completely missed the man in gorilla suit who appeared on the screen for a full 9 seconds and pounded his chest. I was happy to learn that I am not the only blind casualty of this psychology experiment. About 50% of people, under the same conditions, do not see the gorilla. So what does this have to do with you and I? This implies, that to our detriment, we miss a great deal of what goes on around us. I work with many hard charging, results oriented, get it done now, professionals. These are certainly good qualities, but they come with cost, if we are not careful. Just as with the above example; of someone not noticing their partner while watching a sporting event, it is possible for us to not see how we are impacting important people, in our business, by our narrow focus.

As a CEO, I remember I was so focused on accomplishing a particular task, that I gave my administrative assistant some assignments, almost unconsciously. I failed to notice she was under tremendous stress because we had multiple clients in the office, she was supporting. At the end of the day, I could see more clearly and recognized that I had created a great deal of stress for my good employee. She was not about to tell me no for several reasons: My position power as CEO made it hard for her to say something like, “now is not a good time” or “can I complete these tomorrow?” Additionally, she was generally conflict avoidant, a behavior I knew to be a part of her behavioral traits and personality profile.

At the end of the day, I apologized to her because I wanted her to be a happy engaged employee. I did not WANT to put her under unnecessary stress. She was working hard and helping our customers. What I asked for was important, but it surely could have waited for a day. I was just hyper focused on getting things done; I did not notice the impact of my focus. The apology was accepted, yet how often do we repeat the same behavior. What happens to our team member’s engagement when the leaders poor behavior is repeated again and again? Employees become disengaged. They lose trust in leadership and the culture is weakened.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to get the job done (results). However, we can never get everything we need done alone. We must enlist the help of our team. We get so much more done when we have a team that is engaged and motivated. Leaders who have developed relationships of trust most easily achieve this condition. To get our desired results, we must also pay attention to relationships. Some leaders seem to have a natural talent for this. Some leaders can spend too much time on relationships, sometimes at the expense of results. The best leaders learn how to effectively balance tasks and relationships.

Let me give a personal example of balancing task and relationship. I have five children and I want a great relationship with each of my children. I also enjoy having a clean house and order especially when I come home after a long day at work. It just so happens, that some of my kids come home from school and immediately take off their shoes and socks. They just leave them where they are, which is usually on the family room floor. If I am just focused on the task when I come home, I see the socks and the first thing I say to my son, “why are your shoes and socks on the floor again?! Go put them away!” He gets up after rolling his eyes and takes his things stomping out of the room. When he returns, I want now focus on the relationship. I ask, “How was your day? How did your math test go?” My efforts at relationship building are not well received. My son is no mood to talk to me now.

Let me change the scenario. I come home tired, and I notice the socks and shoes on the floor. Instead of immediately focusing on the task of creating order, and a clean house, I focus on the relationship I want with my son. I ask him about his day and math test. I ask him how volleyball practice went and if the girl he asked to the prom responded to his proposal. We have a great conversation. I then turn my attention to the socks and shoes and say, “where are those supposed to be?” he says, “Away.” I say, “go take care of that please.” In this scenario, the outcome is so much greater. I have strengthened the relationship and improved household order. You can have both, and in the long run, balancing both is so much more effective and rewarding.

If you are like me, and get too focused on “task”, there is hope. You can improve your awareness and perceptional limitations. It takes a desire to improve your self-awareness. Improving your emotional intelligence will be a great help. Some of the suggestions I have given in other articles about emotional intelligence will apply here and some are unique. (See links at the end of the article.)

5 Suggestions To Improve Your Vision:

  1. Think about the end result:

    Sometimes in our rush to get things done, we may not think about the consequences of our actions and behavior. Slow down a little and think about the outcomes. We may still be innattentionally blind to some of the outcomes even when we slow down, however, this practice will help us to improve more and more over time.

  2. Change your focus:

    I find that if I am watching TV and focused on a sporting event and my wife talks to me, I may not hear her. I have learned to stop, disengage in what I am doing, and focus on her. The benefits of this to my relationship should be obvious.

  1. Schedule time to focus:

    As a busy executive, I am often focused on important tasks. If you are like me, you get many interruptions throughout your day. People constantly stop by my office with “got a minute?” situations. Several problems arise in these situations. Possibly, you ignore them because you are so focused, and they leave disappointed. Or you keep doing what you are doing and pay only partial attention to what is needed. You miss important details and send a message the employees concerns and the employee is not important. Maybe, you continually stop what you are doing, to focus on the needs of your employees, because you value the relationship. This can cause your own tasks to suffer.

    A better option is to let your team member know they are important. Tell them you want to give them the time they deserve, however, right now is not a good time, unless it is an emergency. You schedule time when you can give your complete attention to their concerns. You can effectively balance task and relationship.

  2. Identify your blind spots:

    Become aware of when you have blind spots. When you are talking on your cell phone, watching TV, in a stressful situation, giving a presentation, managing a project, etc. Our behavior in these situations is often predictable and tied to our preferred behavioral traits. Knowing your behavioral trait patterns will help you identify your blind spots. Use a behavioral assessment you trust and work with a trusted advisor to help you understand the implications of your behavior traits.

  3. Be vulnerable:

    Give others permission to give you feedback on what you may be missing. In order to see what we are missing, it is helpful to understand situations where this occurs. This help will come to you when you encourage feedback and avoid being defensive. That takes admitting you may occasionally miss things and it requires a willingness to improve.

The cost of not improving your vision is great. When you are so focused on the task, much is missed. We can miss changes in competitive landscape. Changes in market conditions. We can miss changes in our employee’s engagement. We miss opportunities to strengthen and improve important relationships with our team, clients, family, and friends. We miss areas in our behavior, which may be holding us back from being as successful and happy as we want to be.

Related Topics: Cure For The CEO Disease, How To Defeat The Fog of War in Business, One Reason We Struggle With Emotional Intelligence, Is The Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team?

The author, Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC

2 thoughts on “What Is Innattentional Blindness Costing You?

Leave a Reply