What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

Blind spots can limit your effectiveness and derail your career. As you get more senior, they can make other people’s lives miserable, too. Ask around.

I’ll state this out front:

I’m not sure an article of this kind can be written without a taste of irony. If you know me, you will see my blind spots pop out from the text or in your mind. If you don’t know me, you know somebody like me and will see the same. It can’t be avoided. Writing an article on other people’s blind spots is an invitation for the “pot-kettle-black” defense.

I can live with that.

The Curious Case of Blind Spots

What’s a blind spot?

To answer that question, I’ll refer to a tool called the Johari window.

Johari what you say?

The Johari window is an interpersonal evaluation tool that is fantastically simple and at the same time fantastically powerful when used in honest feedback cultures. It looks like this:


Basically, it’s a shorthand way of categorizing all the things that either help or hurt you in interactions with others.

There are things you know about yourself (that means you admit that their impact is real, not that you know that the thing exists) and that others know about you (like, for instance, that you have a massive temper).

That’s the “Arena.”

There are things that neither you nor others know about you (like how you might perform in a life or death circumstance). Those things might be revealed to be good or bad.

That’s the “Unknown.”

There are things you know about yourself that others don’t know about you (like that you have massive anxiety attacks before walking into a high-stakes meeting, but are good at hiding them from others).

That’s your “Façade.”

And, finally, there are things that other people know about you that you do not know about yourself.

Those are your “Blind Spots.”

By the way, I encourage you to study the Johari window. It’s a simple tool that I have used throughout my career, although not with everyone. For those who have been the victims of a personalized Johari window session with me, I’ll admit now that the time I spent on the topic is a fantastic indicator of how much I care for them. It’s a tool of caring…seriously.

The Johari window is fully contextual. You may have a professional façade that drops the moment you walk through the door at home or at your local pub. You may have a personal façade at home that hides the tyrannical manager you actually are at work. It works both ways.

But why blind spots?

Blind spots can be brutal. They don’t have to be necessarily bad, but they can be brutal. And I’ll get to that in a moment.

Why focus on blind spots rather than the other areas of the window?  I’ll put it this way:  Your blind spots are a direct measure of both the integrity of the people around you and your own openness to feedback and change. The other areas are either your willful submission to feedback (Arena), your willful withholding and manipulation (Façade), or, as we say in the business, TBD (Unknown).

But blind spots are the people around you willfully withholding from you and manipulating you, which makes them dangerous.

How they are dangerous…

The danger of blind spots comes either from the distaste they create or from the lever for manipulation they create.

I’ll demonstrate with a benign examples, then extend to something more malignant.

Imagine a highly capable manager who has a habit of chewing a pen. Yes, it’s objectively a bad habit, but it’s one that is tolerated at many levels of the organization. Everybody the person is in meetings with witnesses the person chewing on his pen. Even the manager himself knows he chews his pen, so you might say the action isn’t really a blind spot. But blind spots aren’t about the actions themselves—they’re about the impact of the actions. And so when half the people who witness our manager with a writing instrument between his teeth are genuinely disgusted by it, our friendly manager is slowly and gently blackballed from higher management because of “presence” issues or some other HR euphemism.

Our highly capable manager is now capped out by a habit that could be solved by one bit of feedback. The manager thinks he has a crutch, but others think he has a disgusting habit. Somebody needs to talk to him, and he himself needs to ask about his own blind spots.

A more malignant blind spot that is endemic across workforces relates to good traits being used by others for ill gains. This is the realm of gender and equitable pay discrimination. One worker works for $60K a year, while the person in the next cubicle is doing the same (or less) work but making $90K. Some managers rely on these sorts of disparities. They rely on loyalty and trust as a kind of blind spot. The manager is aware of the disparity and knows that the worker is selling their time cheap, but the worker thinks the company is fair and worthy of loyalty.

Loyalty, then, can be a highly blinding trait (in at least some cases, it can even be considered blind loyalty). When a person who buys into the “team player” work mentality is working for managers who are covertly playing an “every person for themselves” game, these sorts of disparities become real. A pay culture built on loyal, naïve, and willing “suckers” is the pain of blind spots writ large.

Of course there are blind spots that are so bad they are almost comical. I once knew an executive who had a deep and abiding habit of bending the truth in highly visible ways. And I don’t mean white lies like “you look great today,” although those were legion. I mean lies that are so obvious and known to so many people that the executive became a bit of a hall-talk laughing stock because of it. This particular individual would frequently launch a whopper that was verifiably deceptive to the tune of “I just had a meeting with so and so” when so and so was never in such a meeting and perhaps not even in the building. Of course, as is often the case with highly effective liars, executives like this only need to fool the people who feed them.  That particular executive’s skill at and focus on upwardly targeted deceptions overcame the reality of their ineptness in all the others. Everybody, except their superiors, knew they were generally dishonest.

Don’t be that guy!

Which brings me to my final point. Really bad situations come from blind spots in high places. A senior executive who has a blind spot about his habits or weaknesses or tells, or the foibles of ego (or loyalty, for that matter), is susceptible to manipulation in ways that perhaps lower level employees are not.


Because typical senior executives have positions of power. They can make decisions that allocate real resources, and because of that, they are studied by others more thoroughly than anyone else. Nearly everyone these execs interact with in a professional context is looking for resources or sales or even just favor. Therefore, nearly everyone studies their interactions with these higher-ups looking for their blind spots. The only antidote is to maintain a set of healthy, close relationships with people who will challenge you and reveal your blind spots. Still, combine aggressive character study with ego, and you have a recipe that no close relationship can overcome. Years of flattery make some people impervious to the truth in these circumstances.

So what?

Why take the time to write on blind spots?  Because they are actually solvable, but they require diligence and discipline, and because they are highly deleterious to most true strategic approaches to career or company leadership. You may not chew pens, but you might ignore subordinates or interrupt peers or fall victim to flattery. All you have to know is that your blind spots can work against you, or in the worst of cases, actually be used against you.

Ask around, and if people say you have no blind spots, ask some new people.

The Pain of Virtual Leadership

We all talk a big game.  It’s what we do when the chips are down that shows the kind of leader we are.

In case you missed it, today fed us an interesting anecdote in the world of fast growing companies.

Lauded startup Zirtual, a darling of the flexible work scene, announced that it was “pausing operations” in a terse and terminally unfunny email from founder and CEO Maren Kate Donovan delivered to customers just after 6am ET today.

“I realize this news comes incredibly fast and I am truly sorry for the Z-shaped hole this will leave in your lives and business.”

The Z-shaped hole?

Yes, that was in the letter to customers.

Now, the impact on customers of a sudden and absolutely unforeseen shutdown of a key administrative service is tough.  But, what about the impact on the more than 400 employees Zirtual had?  Of course, they knew.  Right?

Wrong.  Zirtual’s assistants found out by being locked out of their email accounts.

Yes, that’s right, the company folded and didn’t tell its employees until afterward.

So what?  Right?  Happens all the time.

Well… Sorta.   This one comes with a lesson.

It’s a lesson called: Don’t let your mouth write checks your character won’t cash.

To wit:  just 21 days ago, erstwhile Zirtual CEO Maren Kate Donovan wrote an article titled “How to Manage Chaos during a Company Shakeup” in Fortune.  Here’s your link.   It’s juicy with “you gotta be kidding me” quotes.   Such as:

“My team is without a doubt my biggest asset, which is something I never take for granted. So it’s vital to keep them in the loop during periods of change and consistently show support. Because what my employees don’t know could ultimately hurt the entire business. The sooner your team knows about upcoming shifts in the companythe better.”

Yeah.  She wrote that.

And…In a section titled “Don’t worry about your image” she drops this whopper:

“Oftentimes being honest about your own uncertainties in tough times relays a stronger message than being stern.”

Now, thanks to an early career stint at a venture-lending operation, I’ve witnessed the pain of a company shutdown in a few (perhaps half a dozen) instances and actually liquidated one. I understand the pain. I do not write this to stomp on a company that obviously has just imploded for some as-yet-to-be determined reason.

I write it because of one reality:  We all talk big.  Some people with big platforms and bullhorns talk the loudest.  They talk the loudest about being “reassuring” and being “vulnerable.”

We all talk big.

But, when the chips are down, all the big talk is useless.  It’s how you act when you are in the worst of circumstances that defines your (and my) character.

In good times, it’s easy to write for Fortune about your warm fuzzy leadership style.  Rarely is such commentary revealed to be hooey so quickly as in the Zirtual case.

Maren Kate Donovan doubtless has had a bad few days lately.  And, I’m sure there will be more written about Zirtual over the coming weeks as the facts of a 400+ employee company abruptly imploding comes to light.

Still, it’s a case study in failed communication; and a case study in faux leadership.