The Power of Noticing
What’s in front of you is rarely all there is. Developing the tendency to ask questions like “What do I wish I knew?” and “What additional information would help inform my decision?” can make all the difference. It can make you a far better decision maker, and it can even save lives. Learning to notice the things that aren’t immediately obvious is an important skill that can be developed.
Understanding what is at work when we fail to notice is crucial to understanding how we can learn to pay attention to what we’re missing. This book promises to provide you with exactly this understanding and a blueprint for noticing for the rest of your life.
If we are motivated to turn a blind eye to what someone says or does, we are far less likely to see that person’s immoral behavior. The term motivated blindness describes one’s systematic failure to notice others’ unethical behavior when it is not in one’s best interest to do so. Simply put, if you have an incentive to view someone positively, it will be difficult for you to assess the ethicality of that person’s behavior accurately. In many cases, what you see isn’t all there is, because you have reasons to decide it isn’t even there.
Motivated blindness is not inevitable; it is, in fact, surmountable. The evidence of countless whistle-blowers speaks to this fact. Effective decision-making, and consequently effective leadership, can hinge on overcoming motivational blindness. But how can we do so? First, we can learn to notice the facts around us more fully. Second, we can make decisions to notice and act when it is appropriate to do so. Third, we can create clear consequences for leaders when they fail to act on facts that indicate unethical behavior. Fourth, leaders can provide incentives to speak up for decision makers throughout their organization.
Plenty of people don’t notice conflicts of interest. When someone tells you, “This is just how it’s done in our field,” that should prompt you to ask why it is done that way and whether there is a better way to do it. Too often, in industry, we offer, as a reasonable explanation, that an action is “commonplace,” even when it is clear that what is accepted practice is not necessarily correct or appropriate. The fact that the behavior is common normalizes it, but it doesn’t certify that the behavior is the right thing in do. And when we fail to oppose unethical behavior, we, too, become part of the problem.
We know how to make logical decisions: define your objectives, identify the multiple criteria that you are trying to achieve, weight the criteria, identify options, and analyze the best choice. Of course, there are lots of variations of these kinds of logical processes. Those who want to misdirect us do not want us to be so logical. They want to hijack our thinking and manipulate us to do what they want. When you start to stray from logic, and another person is involved, whether she is a negotiator, marketer, or politician, it is time to put yourself in her shoes, understand her motives, and adapt accordingly. Whenever we interact with people and we do not believe they have our best interests in mind, we need to look beyond the information they put in front of us and think about what they are trying to get us to do and how we can get the information we actually need. When our goal simply becomes to notice, we can avoid the misdirection of magicians and others who borrow from their craft.
Most people tend to be overconfident, and some experts have argued that overconfidence is the most important of all decision-making biases. Because overconfidence can prevent us from noticing the downside to our actions, it can trigger wars that never should have been started. Overconfidence may explain the high rates of corporate mergers and acquisitions, despite the fact that they so often fail. Similarly, overconfidence could prompt an executive to believe that her firm’s excellent performance in the next period will conceal the current period’s negative results—and steer her onto the slippery slope of unethical behavior.
The evidence should motivate you to stop and engage your more methodical mode of thinking before escalating your commitment to a strategy that is not working out. Not only should you audit your behavior to make sure that continuation makes sense, but you should also monitor your behavior to make sure you aren’t headed down a psychological slippery slope that will result in unethical behavior that you would never have thought you’d condone. Too often executives engage in unacceptable behavior not because they originally intended to defraud but simply to justify the mess that they got into.
Thinking one step ahead allows you to identify when to be trusting and when to be cynical. It is wise to think carefully about the decisions and motives of the other party so that you can understand what a problem looks like from his or her perspective. Thinking ahead may help you identify when reasons to trust exist and when you have justification to be cynical. While it doesn’t make sense to be cynical simply because you are dealing with a person rather than a machine, we should not necessarily trust all individuals in all contexts. In some situations, it costs little or nothing to collect additional information to test our intuition, but we often fail to do so. Your goal should be to understand the strategic behavior of others without destroying opportunities for trust building.
I hope that, after reading this far, you are well on your way to becoming a first-class noticer. First-class noticers, however, are more consistent. Even when failures occur, they focus on what they did and, more important, on what they could do differently in the future. As a result, they avoid repeating their mistakes. Focusing on self-improvement allows us to learn from experience and develop the tendencies needed to become first-class noticers.
Employees often have the analytic ability to notice, but their organization’s culture or incentive system prevents them from using it. Leaders have a unique responsibility to create systems that will increase the likelihood that their staff will notice important information and respond in a productive manner. Leaders should audit their organizations for features that get in the way of noticing. It is often the first step toward identifying what needs to change to create an organization filled with first-class noticers.
The Power of Noticing also challenges leaders to be noticing architects. Leaders too often fail to notice that they have designed systems that encourage a misspecified goal (such as recorded sales) rather than a more appropriate one (actual profit to the organization). I encourage all leaders to become better noticing architects and to design systems that encourage employees to notice what is truly important.
As I hope you have learned by now, focusing is important, but sometimes noticing is better —at least when you are making critical decisions. I hope that this book has provided useful guidance to help you, as a focuser, also become a first-class noticer.