Selective perception,diversity andteam leadership

Selective perception, diversity and team leadership

I’m sure you are familiar with the notion of “selective perception.” It is not simply that we pay more attention to some things than others. We only notice some of the things going on around us. We do not experience everything that is right in front of us. Our vision of reality is partial and skewed.

This has profound implications for leadership.

Two examples of selective perception: 

In my workshops on team leadership, I show this great little video clip by Daniel J. Simons: http://viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/grafs/demos/15.html. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so please take a look at this short clip before reading on. It is very easy to integrate this clip into your training programs. (Obviously, stop the clip half way through and ask people how many passes they counted—this helps build a bit of suspense for what is to come.)

After the “count the passes” clip, I show (or describe) an amazing scene from the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) in which a Japanese fighter plane flies right over the heads of two American naval officers at the Pearl Harbor base. The officers assume it’s an American plane flying too low over the base and one of the officers snarls: “I am going to cite that guy for safety violations.” The plane then drops a bomb, causing a major explosion a few hundred yards from where the officers are standing. Frozen in their tracks, they stare in disbelief, not comprehending what has happened. Finally they snap out of their “false reality” and run to the communication center to report that Pearl Harbor is under attack.

What’s so crazy about this scene is that these officers know what all of the Japanese fighter planes look like; they know the markings on the Japanese planes; they know the world is at war; and have even trained for an attack on Pearl Harbour. My father tells me that when he was a little boy in Calgary, Canada during WW2, he and his little friends knew the marking on all the planes in the war. And yet these two officers do not “see” the Japanese airplane and its markings which are in plain view. They do not see what is right in front of them. They do not see reality as it is. They see what they are expecting to see; they see what would be most likely for them to see on an American base at that time of day.

This is true of all experience. For the most part, we see what we want and expect to see. Our daily reality is shaped by our hopes, dreams, fears, expectations and past experiences—our interests, values and projects—all of which are influenced by cultural and historical forces that extend beyond our freedom and understanding. And we do this for the most part unconsciously: the simplest of our perceptions go through a variety of filters (emotional, intellectual and cultural), selecting pieces from an almost limitless field of potential experience.

Our eyes are not windows to reality, but doorways to a world of our making. As Nietzsche observed (long before modern psychology was invented), there is no such thing as “immaculate perception.”

Team leadership and social intelligence:

Everyday reality is a “false reality,” and we need a variety of checks and balances to check our assumptions, validate our ideas and question the status quo. We will never peel back all of the layers to gaze at pure reality (if there is such a thing), especially not in the complex situations we face every day in business. Nevertheless, without a regular and rigorous practice of critical reflection, we naturally drift off further every day into fantasy land. Becoming detached from reality, from what is actually happening and from the ever changing needs of our employees and customers, is extremely negligent and dangerous for all organizations.

When I use the “count the passes” clip in my Team Leadership programs, I draw the following conclusions.

When you watch the video, you are sharply focused on counting the passes and miss other crucial information (if you saw the video, you know what I am talking about).

Many kinds of success depend on that kind of sharp focus. A laser-like focus is crucial to high performance expertise, especially for technical experts and technical tasks.

A narrow focus is a risky strategy, however, for broader human needs: being a good parent, citizen, friend and the like, in which we need a much broader, nuanced and layered focus.

Likewise, moving from being a technical expert to a position of leadership requires broadening your view: stepping back from the task at hand to see the bigger picture. A leader has to constantly zoom in and out; stepping back from the trees to see the forest and then diving back into the trees again to analyze the details. Moving back and forth between the whole and the parts (between the big picture and the task at hand) helps the leader:

  1. maintain a clear line of sight to the big picture (strategic focus),
  2. align individual and team goals with strategic objectives (strategic alignment) and
  3. stay in touch with reality, i.e., confirm that our actions are helping us get what we want.

If anyone is interested, some of the most profound and rigorous analyses of reading reality in this way (experiencing both the parts & the whole, perception & reflection, text & context) can be found in “hermeneutics” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricouer, and others). Hermeneutics was profoundly influenced by phenomenology (Husserl and Heidegger) and later deconstructed and radicalized by Derrida and others. Happy to supply references to anyone who is interested.

In any case, the higher you go in an organization, including the move from functional leadership to a general management, the broader your view needs to be.

Lesson for team leadership: On teams, it is not possible for the leader to see everything. You need to hear from, listen to and learn from others—across your team, organization and supply chain. While the technical experts are working their craft, you need to ensure they are performing and developing and also notice when an elephant is sitting in the room. And at the same time, you have to be building a culture in which every person on your team feels comfortable enough to speak up when they see that elephant—or gorilla.

Leaders need diversity on their teams—not merely tolerating diversity but benefiting from diverse ideas, strengths, styles, and roles people play. A broad range of ideas and perspectives makes a team richer and stronger, but only if you are able to manage diversity; only if you are open to different ideas and perspectives—even ones that seem to come from left field—and are good at getting the best from everyone on your team. Leaders must be proactive in creating a culture in which people contribute energetically to team debriefing (critical reflection) and take the risk of disagreeing and questioning the status quo. See blog on team consensus.

It is very important for leaders to continually adjust their focus, creating an appropriate balance between:

  1. the short and long term
  2. the functional and strategic (corporate) needs
  3. individual, team and organizational performance
  4. the evolving needs of your key stakeholder groups
  5. a balanced scorecard for all employees: performance, skills, and values

This takes hard work; a team that is encouraged to think and empowered to speak up; a culture of candor; and solid practices in critical reflection and validation.

Lesson for team smarts and social intelligence: Pay attention to how people react to another, not just how they act; use your peripheral vision; pay attention to group dynamics and how people work together (George Barrett).


See this blog introducing the practice of critical reflection: Debriefing: Learn to Work and Work to Learn.

See also: Track both Efforts and Results: Doing the right things gives you a better chance of achieving your goals. We therefore need to track both behavior and results: Are you doing the right things; and is what you are doing getting you what you want?

A few relevant book and articles:

Argyris, Chris. “Good Communication that Blocks Learning,” Harvard Business Review (July-August 1994).

Graham, Ginger L., “If You Want Honesty, Break Some Rules,” Harvard Business Review (April 2002): 42-47.

O’Toole, James and Warren Bennis, “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor,” Harvard Business Review (June 2009): 54-61.

Whiteley, Richard & Diane Hessan. “From ‘Listening To’ to ‘Hardwiring’ the Voice of the Customer,” Customer Centered Growth (Addison Wesley, 1996), chapter 3. [This article reminds us how important it is to seek evidence—in this case, in the form of customer feedback.]

Bossidy & Charan, Confronting Reality: Doing what Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business 2004).

Advanture offers several relevant action learning programs, e.g.,

  1. Our coaching program teaches leaders how to do critical reflection in a way that validates efforts, speeds the cycle of learning and drives continuous improvement.
  2. Our facilitation workshop teaches leaders how to leverage diversity, bring the best out of everyone, improve collaborative practice and use your facilitation skills to build teams of leaders and leaders of teams.
  3. Our workshop on team leadership shows leaders how to maintain an “external focus” so that their teams do not fall into naval gazing. Inward focus on team skills and team process must be balanced with external focus on the team’s stakeholders. External focus enhances team speed, flexibility, change hardiness and relevance—in the sense of not losing touch with the ever changing needs of their stakeholders.

Give Advanture a call. We would be happy to help you take your organization’s leadership practices up the next level for enhance business performance.

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