Blind Spots of Brilliance: The Unconscious Pitfalls of Leadership in a Rapidly Changing World

evolve evolving workplaces exceptional life gut brain head brain heart brain nervous system neuroperformance neuroscience Oct 05, 2023

A challenge many leaders (especially senior leaders) have and may not recognize are the blind spots created by their high level of competence and success. In order to earn their positions, Leaders have typically learned and developed the skills required and demonstrated a high level of competence and capability.

You’re likely thinking - that doesn’t sound like a pitfall or challenge. How could a leader’s competence be an issue or problem for them? Stick with me here through a bit of neuroscience and I'll get to the challenges.

Developing Unconscious Competence

As we are repeatedly executing or performing our roles, we grow our skills, competence, and capabilities. Within our brains and bodies, neural pathways around these capabilities are reinforced, allowing us to perform more easily.

Overtime, we become totally unconscious of our competence. We execute a skill and don’t have to think about it. Like riding a bike or driving a car.

Have you ever arrived somewhere and forgotten how you got there because you were on autopilot?

Similarly, as leaders (especially if we have honed the use of our strengths or talents) we can perform certain capabilities without even recognizing how we are doing them or knew to do them in the first place.

Blind Spots Created by Unconscious Competence

As leaders develop greater competence, their awareness of how they are executing or making decisions becomes unconscious. This lack of conscious awareness can lead to amazing performance results while also creating blind spots for the leader!

What challenges do leaders face as a result of this unconscious competence?

Let's look at a few blind spots created by unconscious competence!

Trouble Transferring or Training Competence

As a leader, when you are training others on a skill or capability you are proficient at and have been doing for years, do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated with those you are training?

Do you get frustrated that they just can’t grasp something that feels like a no brainer to you?

That’s because it literally is a no brainer to you!

You don’t have to consciously think about how to do it. But those who aren’t at your skill level still do. And it can be really hard to explain how to do something that we are unconsciously competent at doing.

As a result, leaders can believe that others aren't capable of developing a particular skill or competence because a person is slow to demonstrate them. This leads to conflict, as well as inaccurate reviews and feedback on performance.

Leaders may also struggle to transfer knowledge or understanding of why they make certain decisions or the basis for the actions they are taking. This lack of understanding often leads to frustration in those trying to understand the direction or learn the tasks.

Challenges with Changing Terrain

If, as a leader, I am making decisions and taking actions using my unconscious competence, what happens when something changes? What happens when the world experiences a pandemic or AI becomes commonplace?

As our world changes in significant ways, a leader's current neural pathways and rationale for making decisions may quickly become out of date. Quite literally the terrain of our organizations and workplaces is rapidly changing right under our feet.

Consider the "Doubling Knowledge Curve":

  • From 1900 to 1950, knowledge doubled in 50 years.
  • From 1950 to 1970, Knowledge doubled in 20 years.
  • From 1930 to 2000, knowledge doubled in 8 years.
  • As of 2017, knowledge was doubling every 13 months.
  • As of 2020, knowledge was doubling every 12 hours!

The true basis and accuracy of the knowledge doubling curve may be somewhat unclear; however, countless examples exist showing the increasing creation and usage of technologies, how quickly companies grow (and fail), population growth, electronic data creation, mental health, obesity, and countless other examples of ways our world is changing quickly.

This changing terrain increases the difficulty in relying on unconscious competence to make decisions. Lacking information on the current state due to rapidly changing environments increases the difficulty of making decisions.

Invisible Impacts

What happens when the way I’m operating as a leader is having unintended negative consequences that I’m totally unaware of because I’ve developed this unconscious competence?

As leaders, we may be unable to see many of the impacts our behaviors, decisions, and actions are having on others or our organizations. Leaders who take actions based upon their many years of experience may be blind to the experiences of others.

For a current example, many workplaces are bringing people back to the office either hybrid or full-time. For leaders who spent their entire careers working in an office, they may assume everyone is has the same skillset and experience they've had with office work.

However, the world has changed in significant ways in recent years that many leaders may not recognize due to their unconscious competence at working in an office setting. Here are a few examples:

  • Childcare Changes: New challenges with childcare such as care provider shortages, shorter hours, and new sick policies are having a more significant impact than they might have for leaders with children in the past. (See my prior article on this topic!)
  • Changing Workplace Practices: Learning to work in a remote capacity requires a different skillset than working in an office. The change to an office environment may come with a significant learning curve for some individuals and impact performance and results. (Even those who worked in an office previously; those neural pathways were reduced during the time people were working remotely).
  • Increased Sources of Stress: Significant research has shown the effects of the increased stress in recent years on large portions of the population. Whether it's the increased substance abuse rates, loneliness pandemic, or impacts of the higher cost of living, people are undoubtedly under higher levels of stress. Navigating these challenges and managing our nervous systems effectively is much more difficult than in the past.
  • Child Mental Health Issues: For those with children, the mental health crisis is especially concerning - and the challenges people are dealing with at home may not be something most leaders have ever encountered. Many parents (of even young children) have to be regularly monitoring depression, giving of medications, making time for appointments with counselors and therapists, and dealing with suicide ideation requiring near constant supervision.

These examples highlight the challenge leaders may have with understanding the full scope and impact of their decisions. With a world changing at an increasingly exponential rate, it's more difficult for leaders to truly understand the experience of their people and impacts of their decisions.

What can we do?

Leaders need to pay attention to these potential blind spots and proactively check their decisions and actions. By including a variety of perspectives when making decisions (particularly people with different personal situations) leaders can better anticipate potential impact of their decisions.

Leaders benefit significantly from having a performance partner or coach to continuously challenge their unconscious competence. This resource can help to create awareness of the unintended consequences of a leader's decisions.

This support is especially important as people and leaders make decisions about how to use and interact with AI. Relying on unconscious competence could put people, organizations, and even the world at risk.

Using the same decision-making approach you’ve always used isn’t going to factor in new data, challenges, and impacts.

According to neuroscience studies, our brains make decisions 10 seconds before we become consciously aware of them.

As result, Leaders need to become more aware of their unconscious wiring and how it is impacting their decisions, relationships, families, organizations, businesses, and lives.

Using neuroscience, we tap into unconscious decisions, behaviors, and actions in order to up-level leaders for the future! Never has decision-making been as critical as it is in today's rapidly changing and complex environment.

We work with leaders and CEOs on how to look at their decisions, behaviors, and actions through a broader neuroscience-based lens. This approach helps leaders to become more conscious and self-aware of their unconscious competence and consider their impact.

Whether you are making decisions as a leader or individual, in a workplace or at home, your decisions are impacting everything and everyone around you. Learning to access all your intelligences and make wiser decisions is the key!

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