The High Cost of Being Over-Confident and Out of Touch
By J. Allen | February 27, 2018
What happens when you don’t notice, don’t understand, and don’t seek to discover what’s going on? Are you innocently out of touch? Do you walk around, unaware of your surroundings, as if there was a bucket over your head? Are you too busy or preoccupied, to think that being in touch with the extensive reality around you is un-important? That the reality has implications and reveals wonderful opportunities and critical problems?
Do you really grasp the importance of being in touch and understand the severity of being out of touch? Are you being naturally insular, or is this the purposeful condition stemming from a fear of finding out things contrary to your perceptions and strongly-held beliefs?
Seeing the Big Picture is a Big Deal
Picture a puzzle with many missing pieces – it is lacking clarity without the reference photo on the puzzle box. Some sections seem apparent, but their connection to the “larger picture” is uncertain. To make insightful, assured statements about the complete puzzle is unreasonable. Let’s expand this concept to real life. The real life “picture” is always moving, trends are evolving, becoming new realities at remarkable speed.
Your ability to individually see, absorb and understand what is happening – and create a competitive vision to deal with “fast moving scenarios” is far too limited. If you try to do it based on your own thinking and perspective, it’s even tougher. Your ability to clearly understand the trends is increasingly dependent on others to provide their “pieces” of insight and knowledge. Even the wisest among us – has a limited vision of reality from our own individualized experiences and the lens with which we view things. We all need help to piece together this “fast-moving picture of reality” – to keep up with ever-changing moods and preferences, to determine where we can make a substantial difference and gain a competitive advantage.
The Perils of Assuming
A sober conclusion would be that you, as an individual, cannot know everything you need to know to make the most intelligent decisions. Tools like Google Search may give you access to robust data and many, many unsolicited opinions, but it lacks the precious analytics from engaged people – focused on gaining insights for competitive purposes. There is no substitution for drawing different, insightful perspectives from team members who are immersed in your markets, closest to your customers, and partnering with your suppliers. This information is essential for any successful, informed decision about the current situation – or the future.
Assuming you know best, or hoping you really know what is going on – only works when you are very lucky! And if you are not lucky, you tend to refer to the resulting problem as “unexpected circumstances.” As Joel Barker, the futurist, prefers to more accurately state it: “unanticipated implications.” There is a big difference between the two phrases. One implies relative innocence and blamelessness (“Oh, we did not see the surprises, how could we have been expected to do so?”). The other account clearly states what happened and accepts responsibility (“We failed to consider the scenarios that might result in the outcome. We lacked the focus, discipline or – most importantly – the variety of input that would have informed us of the implications of our decisions.”)
Hope and Luck are Too Undependable
So, why choose to be lucky rather than sufficiently informed? Why be reluctant to search out the critically important thinking and “pieces” of information, assemble them into significant, impactful insights that are difference-makers? What is the problem? Please stop for a moment before probing further. I am not talking about “diagnosis paralysis!” The concept being discussed is about both insightful decision-making and extremely fast, timely decision-making. It is about being continually in touch, not just when an important decision is required. It is about the collective, collaborative insights of others consistently informing and being a reliable insightful foundation for discussion, decision-making and competitive advantage.
How Do We Get Out of Touch?
Back to the why…do you really think that you know it all, know best, and are actually the smartest person in the room? Do you believe that others’ opinions are not so important, that your assumptions are timeless and need not be updated? Really?
Have you forgotten how to ask? Are you so far out of touch, you don’t know where to start, where to go to find out? Are you so embarrassed about being out of touch that you fear looking foolish, asking “stupid” questions? So, do you get further out of touch? Have you forgotten the fun and excitement of understanding a situation or market differently and more clearly seeing the problems and opportunities? Are you missing opportunities that are “right in front of you,” because you fail to ask?
An outstanding CEO client stated something remarkable during our work together: “J, you found out more about us than we wanted to know!” Let that sink in a minute: the CEO confessed that there were “uncomfortable” things happening in the organization that were unknown. You might dismiss this and say “Of course! No leader can know everything that’s going on in their organization!” That’s absolutely true. Also true: through our Quick Discovery process, we surfaced material issues, hard to believe findings and most fascinating – opportunities to grow their business. And here’s a secret – we didn’t really have to dig that hard to find it!
As we left that assignment, having delivered some material growth opportunities to the client, I started speculating about how this happened. The CEO wasn’t known for being out of touch, nor ignoring others’ advice. In fact, this leader was truly outstanding by most criteria – not exhibiting arrogance, foolishness or ignorance. He was confident and surrounded himself with equally confident leaders. And that led me to my next question: “Is there a cost of being too confident?”
The Over-Confident View
What does being too confident look like? It’s not like out of touch leaders intentionally have buckets over their heads. Some describe it as being a “know it all” or suffering from the idea that “what got me this promotion will serve me well in the future.” It may also show up in Leadership listening sessions, when the leaders forget to listen and instead spend the time touting their latest and greatest ideas. We also see it while working with clients when they enter into the Group Think Danger Zone.
Rationalized Conformity is a business-threatening situation that leaves you teetering on the ledge. A leadership team, stuck in their own image of greatness, can’t see the opportunity in front of them, or the risks of not seeing the danger. One example – Target Corp’s expansion of big box stores in Canada. It’s a great case study in over-confidence. Execs at Target suffered from “their own wisdom” in their approach – expecting that this large, fast expansion would closely mimic their store opening process in the US. In retrospect, most agree that they neglected to pay close attention to Canadian customers, markets, and competitors in their planning and execution. By the time they saw the manifestation of their ill-informed plan, they were forced to write off $5.4 Billion with a net loss of $2 Billion.
What’s at Stake
Not paying attention to the world around your organization results in an actual COST. Leadership teams get so caught up in proving their own value and that their idea is best, they forget to open their eyes, ears, and sometimes hearts to alternative ideas, ways of serving customers, and new opportunities.
While we would all prefer to avoid a “multi-billion dollar wakeup call” to get the non-noticer’s attention – that is sometimes what it takes. Sometimes it takes a consistent slide downward in key metrics, or the loss of really talented team members. Sometimes it never happens, and the over-confident non-noticer stays in place, ignoring the wisdom that is all around – missing opportunities, suffering poor results. Leaders need to understand what they have to gain from the wisdom that is all around them.
In the C-suite article, we discuss the skill of being a “noticer.” A leader who is skilled at being a noticer seeks out opportunities to tap into others’ wisdom. They practice “MBWA” – Management By Wandering Around – a tactic made popular by Tom Peters in his book “In Search of Excellence.” A noticer is a leader who asks more questions in pursuit of information, rather than “an answer.” A noticer, while in an elevator or in the line for lunch, makes eye contact and starts a conversation with a line level employee rather than one of his or her direct reports. A noticer is a leader who “listens to learn, then listens to disrupt” as referenced recently by the CEO of Microsoft in a CNBC interview.
If you’ve worked for a non-noticer – you know that it’s quite challenging to bring a new idea up for consideration. Perhaps you’ve even believed in the idea so resolutely you convinced them that the idea was originally theirs. Either way, you understand the opportunity cost associated with working with a non-noticer. Good ideas get killed before they get a minute of consideration. Great ideas get stalled in some decision-making framework. On your most generous day, you describe these leaders as “really being committed to their vision.” On your least generous day, you might call them willfully ignorant – wearing buckets over their heads to ensure no new thoughts get through!
Whether it’s a case of “unconscious incompetence” or a case of outrageous arrogance, the cost to an organization of keeping an over-confident, non-noticing leader is high. You miss trends because your offerings and capabilities don’t match current, much less emerging needs. Over-myopic focus – only driving to make the numbers now, hard selling, discounting, regardless of the changing realities and obvious opportunities – is a threat to sustainable organizational success.
Informed Confidence is Not The Problem
At the same time, some leaders’ confidence is an asset – hard won in battle after battle in the marketplace and even in the board room. Bill LeMothe, one of “J’s Legends” and retired CEO of Kellogg’s, made a statement to me when we worked together: “J, do you know how much more difficult it is to stay on top than to get on top?
We will leave no stone unturned in order to discover our next opportunity for excellence in our work and for our customers (and the emerging needs of both).”
Bill’s confidence was well-earned because he was a masterful noticer – he practiced the tactics and expected his leadership to do the same. His self-assurance was based on the humility of seeking to know more, digging to discover what may be hidden. LeMothe’s confidence was genuine – based on the exciting understanding of marketplaces, customers, competitors, his people; and noticing compelling opportunities.
Want Higher Engagement Scores…Engage, Be an Effective Noticer
As you consider this noticing behavior and ponder the decision to take specific, productive noticing actions – please consider the frustrations of those not being heard. Do they feel stuck in work vs. a valued contributor? Do they lack excitement in their work and arrive each day unable to fulfill their potential as a valuable, insightful team members because they have no voice? The act of listening to learn and taking action on others’ insights is up-lifting to both the noticer and those being noticed! It opens wonderful windows to opinions, thoughts – and, most definitely, engagement. Each of us puts a bucket on our head from time to time – the key is to recognize this and remove the bucket as soon as possible!
Enjoy the freedom of removing the bucket from your head – help others experience that release of energy and fading tension by removing their own buckets. Live more, have more fun, accomplish more.
Start Today – Take Off the Bucket and See Some Future Possibilities
So how do you do it? How to become a noticer – or a better noticer? As leaders, it’s your mission to always be asking, searching, discovering…you need to use both metrics and the skill of noticing [walk and chew gum at the same time!]. Pull out all the stops and take the bucket off your head. Get braver fast, take risks, get out and around – ask, listen, learn, ask again, listen differently, begin connecting the dots, bring insightful clarity to your business puzzle!
Assess your noticing skills, make changes – start modeling the behavior you wish to see in your peers and your team. Help others see the value in setting aside their established views and looking for new ways of thinking and serving customers. When you are successful – others will notice. When you are recognized for it, others will change. You can be the start of a “Noticing Movement” in your organization. Be an effective noticer and watch the organization’s energy increase.
The world is full of solutions and opportunities – available to those wanting to see them. Determine to notice something new or in a new way every day. Observe how you “filter” what’s is going on. Open yourself to being surprised by new perspectives, new information, new opportunities – have some fun, fly a little…
We Can Help
As a Business Consulting Firm – we help leaders find their noticing path. We help them discover their long-lost curiosity about the things hidden “under rocks” in their organization. We help them see, hear and listen to team members differently. We supplement their noticing with our Quick Discovery process to reinforce a candid flow of information and insight. We help them build the business case for an opportunity that wasn’t their idea. We help them learn to love and appreciate this new, or renewed, skill!