[Reading time: 10 mins read]
In a previous article on egocentric behaviour in adulthood (https://thomasdoukas.com/?p=21702) Piaget’s experiment was discussed as an unconscious feature that influences our view and ultimately our judgement and decisions. It’s been claimed in psychology that such developmental stage doesn’t abruptly stop when we leave childhood and we don’t automatically and entirely grow out of it. Egocentrism is closely related to our blind-spots and this article discusses how we all have blind-spots and how coaching can support awareness and ultimately give the person a different perspective that they don’t see.
Our actual vision has a blind spot. This is defined as a small portion of the visual field of each eye that corresponds to the position of the optic disk (also known as the optic nerve head) within the retina. There are no photoreceptors (i.e., rods or cones) in the optic disk, and, therefore, there is no image detection in this area. The blind spot of the right eye is located to the right of the centre of vision and vice versa in the left eye. With both eyes open, the blind spots are not perceived because the visual fields of the two eyes overlap. Indeed, even with one eye closed, the blind spot can be difficult to detect subjectively because of the ability of the brain to “fill in” or ignore the missing portion of the image (https://www.britannica.com/science/blind-spot).
Epley (2014) discusses two potential problems that affect our views and create these blind spots, i.e. the neck and the lens problems. The neck problem refers to what we see, or our failure to recognise that what we are looking at, attending to, or thinking about may be different from what others are perceiving. The lens problem, on the other hand, is about how we see things and our inability to recognise that two people can look at the very same event and interpret it very differently, because they view it through their own lenses of knowledge, experience, beliefs, attitudes and intentions. The neck phenomenon in particular, well documented in psychological experiments, is closely related to our blind spots; our own perspectives systematically differ from others’ perspectives. As Epley puts it:
When two different necks are pointing their heads in different directions, they are attending to different information and basing their evaluations on fundamentally different viewpoints.
In systemic coaching approaches and more specifically in Constellations there’s talk about belonging to various systems, be it our families, social systems, and work structures. These systems and structures affect our beliefs and values and shape our views and perceptions. By virtue of belonging to a system our everyday view of the whole system is always partial i.e. we all have a ‘systemic blind-spot’; we never have a meta-view but a partial-view.
A meta-view is the ‘bigger picture’; a scenery you see from the window of an airplane flying at 38,000 feet; the patterns of the fields underneath, tiny cars slowly-running on country lanes and motorways, and dinky houses dotted in the landscape. The earth appears organised and in order; free from the mess of everyday reality. But how often can we all see this ‘bigger picture’ in our own life or system?
The role of the facilitator therefore is to help the person see the bigger picture using techniques that uncover these blind spots. In this respect, the systemic facilitator is like an external observed, looking at the coachee’s system from a different viewpoint and if she is experienced enough, she is able to ‘lead’ the coachee into seeing more of whole view of their examined systems. The facilitator has a more objective and holistic view as she is outside this system and by focusing on the system’s meta-view, she brings clarity to what may seem chaotic or confusing from being inside the system.
Gilovich et al. (2000) carried out experiments which they refer to as the Spotlight Effect. As our focus is constantly on our own world, networks and behaviours, it’s difficult to accurately assess how much (or how little) our behaviours are noticed by others and what they exactly see in those. The studies reveal discrepancies between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others. Examining previous research on the subject, Gilovich et al. (2000) suggested that the spotlight effect appears to be related to the same phenomenon of egocentrism that Piaget argued found in the thinking of young children. As adults, however, we are largely not as egocentric as children are, and we do not assume that everyone shares their perspective on our world. Still, our blind spots make it difficult to get beyond our own ‘bubble’ even when we recognise that other people may see things differently. As is typically the case with such processes, adjusting the bar of our own experience is a challenging task and so estimates of how we appear to others are overly influenced by how we appear to ourselves. And so, we end up believing that the perspective of others is more like our own than is actually the case. Therefore, being open-minded and attuned to a coach’s efforts to unveil such blind spots, can help us adjust our own perception. A coach, and other people who provide feedback and evaluation of our performance, offer different perspectives and they often have a more objective viewpoint of our systems and behaviours; perhaps a more realistic one.
On the flip side, it has been suggested that teams and work colleagues of the leader won’t tell them the truth when they ask to evaluate and feedback. In a recent article in the Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/9920eb52-1b7e-11ea-97df-cc63de1d73f4) by Emma Jacobs, leaders interviewed across-sectors claim that colleagues will flatter them about their humour and looks, but they won’t give them a real picture of their performance and behaviours. Feedback, evaluations and reviews such as 360-degree, used routinely by successful organisations are often not as easy and smooth as planned, especially when feedback is sought out for very senior people in the hierarchy. Enter, a good coach; to highlight and help the leader see her blind spots by putting a mirror in front of her. A coach will give insight because frequently the one thing that a leader is never good at, is seeing herself as others see her. Sometimes this touches a nerve and anger and disbelief are not uncommon reactions either, but, ultimately, a coach might be the only person to tell the truth.
A leader’s blind spot affects many more people than herself and it can have a widespread influence on her team, department and the entire organisation. Such lack of awareness can cause damage to the person and all those around her. Self-examination with the help of a coach is due here, because by noticing and addressing these blind spots she can improve on her performance and as a result impact on the performance and productivity of her team and other people around her in its entirety. So, don’t turn a blind spot into a blind eye but into a seeing mind instead.
- Epley, N. (2014). Mind-wise. How we understand what others Think, Believe, Feel and Want. Allen Lane, Penguin Books (Psychology)
- Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211–222. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
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 The prefix meta- originates from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-), from μετά, which meant “after”, “beside”, “with”, “among”. Other meanings include “beyond”, “adjacent” and “self”,