This article about Tunnel Vision and Self-Handicapping Leadership is the fifth article in a series of twelve about Self-Handicapping Leadership by Phillip Decker and Jordan Mitchell. All articles can be read without knowledge of the previous ones. You can find an overview of articles in the series at the bottom of this article.
Tunnel Vision Blurs the Big Picture
Tunnel vision is a failure to see the big picture; it can afflict leaders, causing them to focus on a particular outcome and to filter all information and evidence through the lens provided by that outcome. This may result in the leader concentrating on a single idea to the exclusion of all others. Any information that supports the adopted idea or outcome is elevated in significance, while evidence inconsistent with the idea is discounted or overlooked. Tunnel vision can be detrimental to the strategy, engagement, and problem solving initiatives of a leader.
There are many self-handicaps that can cause tunnel vision. Managers sometimes think and operate linearly – one thing at a time – or get so involved in a project or problem that they neglect to see what is going on around them. They often attend to whoever is making the most noise. Or they go into “crises mode” and focus on one problem until it is fixed – to the detriment of all other activities. They may focus too intently on a “people problem,” or they might focus only on “winning.” Leaders may venture so far down their chosen path that they are unable to see the forest for the trees.
The Devastating results of Tunnel Vision
Tunnel vision can cause failure through flawed procedures, the need to win, individuals (such as marketing consultants or politicians) presenting narrow information, overconfidence, lack of time, or other means. The US criminal justice system provides a classic example of flawed procedures. In some ways this criminal justice system both teaches and perpetuates tunnel vision (“Innocence Project: Tunnel Vision,” 2014).
Police officers may shift from investigation to interrogation once they become convinced of a suspect’s guilt. Prosecutors may not objectively evaluate cases or may have flawed grand jury systems. Courts place procedural obstacles in the path of defendants rather than focusing on justice. In the US, mistaken eyewitness identifications are the most frequent cause of wrongful convictions. Managerial tunnel vision, which is more prevalent than most of us realize, can also have potentially devastating results.
Tunnel Vision and the Need to Win
The need to win causes tunnel vision; go into any casino and watch the people who play the slot machines. A few win, but most are self-handicapping – they walk away poorer. Managers may focus on winning at work just as intently. Leaders often lack time for reflection and can place too much importance on one aspect of an event, failing to recognize other factors. These types of tunnel vision can lead to poor decision-making.
When focusing on increasing quality, the focus on cost or access to the product or service may not be high. Often, consultants and marketing folks rely on the tunnel vision of leaders (and consumers) to focus attention on one thing and convince them of the necessity of that feature of a product or service. Politicians do the same: exaggerate the importance of particular issues and ignore others. These instances of tunnel vision can lead to mistakes in predicting future outcomes, buying equipment, engaging employees, or in any other decision activity.
Overconfidence and its Drawbacks
Overconfidence is a perceptual distortion that causes one to overestimate personal abilities. Overconfident leaders are less likely to imitate their peers or to explore their environment, and more likely to act on their own private signals (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). Teams with some overconfident individuals can have an advantage in business, but these leaders have an uneven track record – they are wrong as often as they are right. Entrepreneurs’ perceptions of starting a business may be distorted by overconfidence; risks are discounted, funding is not secured, and the enterprise is more likely to fail.
When tunnel vision meets strategy, there are three types of leaders (Simister 2007):
- Those who focus inward on their own business and expect business today to be the same as tomorrow. They focus on making what they do even better.
- Those who keep an extremely close eye on their competitors. When competitors make changes, they do too. Their customers focus on price as the product or service they offer is the same as everyone else’s.
- Those who focus on the customers’ underlying needs and wants and scan the world for ideas from other industries that they can adapt. These leaders avoid tunnel vision and tend to be excellent.
Tunnel vision can be caused by many other things: the content of a leaders’ training/education, lack of training in the areas of analysis/conceptualization/systemic thinking, inflexibility, stress, lack of time, or personality issues. Self-handicapping in these areas is most often behavioral.
Linear thinking, the inability to “juggle” multiple projects, and letting failures in one project bog down other projects are typically skill issues.
Conceptual thinking – problem solving in the abstract (devoid of operational detail) – takes practice and time and most leaders don’t have the training to do it.
When leaders don’t think they can do a good job or fear failure, they often avoid the task (procrastination). Preparing “to do” lists, focusing more comfortable items (like one’s previous job), and doing easy things first are examples of procrastination. Sometimes managers will interact with people only to get what they want. This may be a controlling leader demonstrating manipulative behaviour, or it may be an introvert not feeling comfortable with interpersonal interaction. Introverts have a predisposition to close up and not offer vulnerability or opinions on possible problems, unlike extroverts. There are many, many self-handicaps with tunnel vision (see Decker & Mitchell, 2016).
‘Letting Go’ of Tunnel Vision
Making a conscious effort to calm down and forcing oneself to scan the environment, asking, “What am I missing?” is the first step in dealing with tunnel vision (Gasaway 2012; “Tunnel Vision” 2015).
Being too quick to reject or gloss over other’s ideas is to be avoided. One way out of this is to explore information from a variety of sources (Martin, 2011). Setting up Google Alerts, reading Business Week, and connecting with people who have different interests helps.
A regular questioning habit of asking “What” and “How” questions (and avoiding “When,” “Why,” and “Who” questions)(see article #1) and accepting accountability (see article #2) to see the big picture must be part of an exceptional leader’s routine. Without time to fully consider all of the issues and implications, leaders can miss warning signs.
Tunnel Vision and Mindsets
Certain mindsets can create and perpetuate severe tunnel vision. Mindsets are mental attitudes or dispositions that predetermine a person’s responses to, and interpretations of, situations (Keller & Price, 2011). If a leader says, “that is not the way things are done around here,” when faced with potential innovative solutions, his mindset drives his behavior and determines outcomes. This can be very self-handicapping.
Mindsets Matter: A story about Monkeys
In Competing for the Future, Hamel and Prahalad (1994) describe an experiment that illustrates the power of mindsets. Several monkeys sit in a cage that has a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling, accessible only by a set of steps. Whenever the monkeys try to climb the steps to get to the bananas, they are blocked by a blast of cold water.
After a few days, the monkeys give up climbing the steps. The researchers then replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. Seeing the bananas, the new monkey starts up the steps. What happens? The other monkeys being social creatures pull the new monkey down before it gets blasted with water. This happens again and again until the new monkey does not bother to go up for the bananas either.
Eventually, if you keep adding new monkeys to the group, they will all learn the rule that “You don’t grab the bananas around here.” In organizations, we know that simply as, “that is not the way things are done around here.” Mindsets matter.
Working with Meaningful Contexts
The key to influencing mindsets lies in making meaningful changes to the context in which you work. You probably act differently in church than at a sporting event. You haven’t changed, but the context has. Your mindset about the behavior that is appropriate in each situation is different – this is a “mindset shift.” There are several ways to influence people to shift mindsets – a compelling story or vision, reinforcement of new skills, and role modeling.
Employees will often change their mindset if they understand what is being asked of them, they see some reward, it makes sense, and they see their leaders doing it. Most exceptional leaders know that role modeling – demonstrating the new behavior – is what leaders do to show employees the proper way to behave in organizations.
Uncovering Mindsets Leading to Poor Outcomes
How do leaders uncover shared mindsets and understand how they are linked to behavior? Mindsets lead to behaviors, which lead to practices, which lead to outcomes. You have to work backward from poor outcomes to find the mindset driving the process. Because mindsets lie below what we can readily observe, they are seldom scrutinized.
A technique called laddering (see Keller & Price 2011), which closely resembles the five-step approach that lean organizations use to get at the root causes of performance problems, can be used to start the process of changing mindsets.
You work backward from the “bad” outcome to process, then to behavior, any reinforcement involved, and finally, the mindset supporting all of it. Then you determine what new mindset is needed and find ways to adopt it. Shifting mindsets is a gradual process, but tackling poor mindsets may be one of the easiest ways to change handicapping tunnel vision in employees.
Avoiding the Handicap and Drawbacks of Tunnel Vision
To avoid the handicap of tunnel vision, leaders need to (Kaufman 2013):
- Have an awareness of everything that is happening in their area and beyond.
- Be able to store and recall important information and utilize it at a later time.
- Be proactive in their approach to leadership, not just be focused on the tasks at hand.
- Have the ability to see what is on the horizon and recognize what is changing.
- Have the ability to recognize red flags early.
- Understand themselves and their environment.
- Understand their mindsets and change them when required.
Guidelines on How to Reduce Tunnel Vision:
Some baby steps you can take to reduce tunnel vision are:
- Use the ladder technique to examine a particular mindset’s hold on you.
- Practice diagramming a problem to show you how complexity increases when you look at a problem different ways and from a larger perspective.
- Explore the website Mindtool.com, create an account, and get started.
Gasaway, R. (2012). Understanding Stress – Part 5: Tunnel Vision. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
Hamel, G., & Prahalad, C. K. (1994, July 1). Competing for the Future. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
Innocence Project: Tunnel Vision (2014). Retrieved September 14, 2014.
Kaufman, B. (2013). A proactive approach to preventing train wrecks, landmines, and derailment. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
Keller, S., & Price, C. (2011). Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Wiley.
Martin, M. (2011). Four Strategies for Combating Career Tunnel Vision. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
Simister, P. (2007). Tunnel Vision or Funnel Vision. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
Tunnel Vision (2015). Retrieved November 2, 2016.