In business, the biggest problem is the one you can't see. And the reason you can't see it is that you have a blind spot.
One of your most important roles as a business leader is to help your team identify and address those blind spots. And one of the most effective ways to do that is to start by acknowledging your own blind spots. That also gives you the opportunity to set ground rules for delivering feedback in a positive way.
Hone Your Tone
I can't stress enough how important it is to set a precedent for positivity. Sometimes a simple change in tone can make all the difference in how your message is received.
I realized, for example, that one of my personal blind spots is a tendency to interrupt people. So, in order to break the habit, I asked the people around me to point it out when I do it. But I also asked that they do it in a respectful way — by calmly saying, "Hey, Dave, you're doing it again." That's so much more palatable for me to hear than if people were to sigh, roll their eyes and say, "You're doing it again, Daaaave!"
It's human nature. A message that feels like a personal attack triggers our ancient fight-or-flight response. So we either lash back ("You think I'm bad? You're way worse!") or shut down. And neither response fosters the kind of healthy communication that's critical to building a successful business.
Coach Yourself as You're Coaching Others
You probably get more opportunities to practice positive feedback in the course of the day than you realize. If an employee emails you a suggestion, for example, it's probably best to avoid a quick, terse response — especially if the response would be negative.
Instead, appreciate that the employee is approaching you in the right spirit: wanting to make an improvement in your company. That's a good thing. You should welcome that. So start your response on a positive note: "I really like the direction you're going here …" Emphasize the positives before broaching the negative: "The only possible catch I see is in using Vendor X," or whatever, and then explain your reasoning. But be sure to end by encouraging them to look into alternatives.
If they keep coming back to you with refinements in their proposal, there's a good chance that you'll run out of objections. And that's a good indication that you ought to give their idea a try.
See the situation as the gift that it is. You should want a team that's engaged in trying to make your company better — not in simply maintaining the status quo. That's the best strategy for your company, collectively, to fix its blind spots.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself giving responses like this to your employees' (or customers') suggestions, you could be oblivious to the kind of blind spots that can drive you right out of business:
"That will never work."
"We tried that once."
"We've always done it this way and see no reason to change."
The Cure for Corporate Blindness
Ultimately, the purpose of overcoming blind spots in yourself and your employees isn't just to become better human beings — although it's certainly a huge bonus to work in an environment of mutual trust and respect. It's learning to recognize and react to blind spots in your business model that could potentially be fatal.
Typically, these blind spots fall into one of two categories: a) failure to innovate, or b) failure to fix a flawed customer experience.
Maybe the best example of Type A was Eastman Kodak's failure to understand the significance of engineer Steve Sasson's 1975 invention: the digital camera. Company executives lacked the vision to see digital photography as the disruptive technology that it was. Or, worse, maybe they did view it as a disruptive technology and simply tried to wish it away because they were so invested in the traditional film camera.
Whatever the case, Kodak failed to capitalize on their first-mover advantage with new technology combined with their position as an established industry leader. Instead, they stubbornly clung to technology that was slowly becoming obsolete. They filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
The Biggest Blind Spot in History?
My all-time favorite example of a company that failed to address its blind spot is Blockbuster Video. Because they actually failed to address both of the blind spots cited above.
First, like Kodak, Blockbuster was slow to recognize disruptive technology: subscription services that allowed customers to receive videos directly in their homes. There was no longer any need to go to a store when you wanted to rent a movie.
The convenience of in-home video services also exposed an even greater flaw in Blockbuster's approach: the late fees they charged their customers for tardy returns to the store.
Think about that. A huge part of the company's business model was to effectively punish the customer!
At a time when customer experience is rapidly becoming the primary brand differentiator, business blind spots don't get much bigger than that.