“Doctors Warn: 9 Out of 10 Deciders Suffer from Inattentive Blindness”

To have fun with this essay we have to invoke the honor system. You have to promise–cross your heart, that you will not read the body of this note until you click onto the following link and watch the video created by Dr. Daniel J. Simons:  Come on, now! No looking any farther down the page! www.smithsonian.com/gorilla

OK, did you see the gorilla in the video?

I didn’t.  But I did get the number of passes between the white-shirted kids correct.  That may not be so good, though. . . .  In a recent article Dr. Simons explains why I missed the hairy fellow dancing and beating his chest through the middle of the game. The phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. I am often told that I am a prime example of one who does not pay attention, but apparently Simon’s category of inattention is a whole new species, an extreme human failure to see what’s plainly in front of our face(s).

How it occurs is what’s really interesting; according to Dr. Simons, “This form of invisibility depends not on the limits of the eye, but on the limits of the mind.”  That got me to thinking.  How often does our mind draw a conclusion or develop an iron-clad notion before we’ve seen all the evidence and at least some of the other ways to interpret what’s going on—therefore, how best to respond?  We get it, and there’s absolutely no talking us out of it!  Nope, we’ll die in our tracks before accepting a different idea of what is true, how best to take it, and what now to do with it.

Disciplined and taking directions well, we are so carefully focused on a critical situation in another part of the “scene,” that we are able to see only that, like noticing and counting carefully ONLY the number of times the ball passes between the white-shirted people.  And nothing else in the frame.  Inattentional blindness prevents our brain from “seeing” the correct path, the one the gorilla is taking, even when it is bracketed with bright signposts pointing the way.  For instance, in the video, the creature beats his chest and dances around, calling attention to himself; he doesn’t cower or attempt to hide from us in the corner of the frame.

How often in business, too, do we see a competitor stake out positions, start ad campaigns, introduce products, do all sorts of nicely disciplined things that we know have no chance of succeeding? We gaze in wonderment; we ask how can they do that?  Simply, someone made the wrong call–often in the face of sound counsel, they simply held onto a position that was wrong.  The position-holder was inattentionally blind, refusing to widen his or her perception to include every moving piece inside the “frame” of the project before making a decision to go ahead.

How hard is it to change someone’s mind when he or she has “the” answer? Has a no-doubt-about-it proposition entrenched between his or her ears?  In my experience, the ability to change someone’s mind is inversely proportional to the effort that person expended to reach a conclusion. It’s a matter of ownership…and it’s personal.  “I’m right because I can see it all so clearly—plus, I spent so long researching and preparing for this decision!”

So we call a meeting certain of the correct strategy.  We open the meeting by laying out our plan. We expect that others may offer up a few tweaks but nothing substantive.  We are gracious in demeanor and we condescend to listen to every hesitant or bold counter-opinion offered.  We intentionally paint ourselves into a corner. And then we reiterate our opinion and the decision that logically follows from it—the opinion we walked into the meeting with.

Yet without a healthy dialogue we can’t see the 800-pound gorilla in the room–the one with a placard that reads “I have the correct answer to your problem.”  But here is the really tricky part of this process–as well as the most interesting. At some level we soon recognize that we moved too quickly to a possible solution, and we feel the frosty shiver of knowledge that there may be a better way. The gorilla comes into focus, but what’s that?  Another animal is in the room.  It’s a two-ton elephant–our emotional fixation to what we profess. Folks, if you let him, that elephant will trample your intellect every time and will make short work of the gorilla, too.  Any thought of an alternative idea, a better solution, is out of the picture.

It’s fascinating that when some folks change their position, we term it “evolving,” yet we see others who do that as “flip-flopping.”  Some of us would rather be stewed in Dante’s inferno than be declared indecisive. Yet the fact is that what people really remember is whether you and your team arrived at the correct destination!  That’s the goal, regardless of whether, for a few days, the team considers you indecisive.  Having a full exposition of opposing views is a cleansing process that ultimately heals any fright you may anticipate (or experience) of having your ideas found wanting.

The lesson is clear, that gorilla is out there somewhere–simply take the time to get a wide and deep vista of views on critical matters before declaring a final work process or product.  But as you gain the reputation of being receptive to others’ insights and opinions, one word of caution:

If asked to pick the most powerful lessons I have learned during my stay on the earth, a top contender is that there are almost always two sides to a story. Parents well understand this.  Our kids in pressing an advantage against a sibling are constantly attempting to incite us to riot against that annoying brother or sister.  As a senior executive, I often chuckled when someone would characterize another’s position as something akin to the navigation plan approved by the captain of the Titanic. Sometimes it worked—I took the bait and ran with it, coming down hard and fast on the teammate tattled on. Perhaps I was a little fatigued, short of patience, and I found myself goaded into action without noticing anything else in the frame. “No doubt about who is right here!”  Then I put a moat around my edict so wide and deep that there was no turning back.

Fortunately, as I gained experience that ploy lost its effectiveness. I wasn’t so hasty to agree with the first opinionator.  Remember this, if you are the inciter and the incitee (i.e., the boss) has the cerebral clarity to stand back from your single-minded campaign pitch and ultimately sees the logical and experiential errors in your reasoning–also known as the truth of the matter –you’re in trouble!  From your boss, of course.   But here comes the gorilla, again—and he’s bearing a big elephant of A Better Idea!  No, he’s not pretty; however, you’d be wise to open your eyes and ears to his opinion—or run!

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About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at www.SantoCosta.com
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2 Responses to “Doctors Warn: 9 Out of 10 Deciders Suffer from Inattentive Blindness”

  1. Cal Stiller says:

    Another good lesson for us all Sandy. Thank you. Cal

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