top of page
  • Marnie Suss

blind spot contagion: how it affects decision-making

Updated: Feb 18


Summary


I’m creating a new term for this post because apparently you can do that on the internet. It's a term I use to describe a phenomenon I regularly see in crisis management, business, and even individual decision-making. It’s called blind spot contagion.


Blind spot contagion is the spread of a belief paired with the lack of acknowledgment that other unknown narratives exist. Like emotional contagion, this can spread within a group of people and it can impact decision-making.


This subtle, but pervasive contagion often occurs prior to decision making. And when it does it clouds judgment; in its most severe form, emboldens confidence.


Blind spot contagion is not a result of ignorance or neglect. In fact, it thrives in highly intelligent, well-reasoned, data driven environments because then the group believes they’ve thoroughly explored all the possibilities. This contagion is similar to the “groupthink” concept of accepting a viewpoint because of the perceived consensus, but less obvious. Blind spot contagion is passive, often beginning prior to group discussions. It is a strong catalyst for “groupthink” to occur.


Blind spot contagion is subtle. It's the erosion of curiosity and humility. It spreads rapidly in a hierarchical culture. It intensifies with the presence of ego and unchecked confidence.


So how does blind spot contagion affect decision-making? Like the spread of most viruses, the symptoms vary. It can be severe or subtle, acute or chronic.


Severe and acute: The January 6th Capitol riots are an example of where blind spot contagion was prevalent, but spread undetected. During my time at the US Capitol Police, I witnessed the spread before and even after the breach. We know from the numerous audits there was strong intelligence indicating a propensity for violence. The majority of decisions aligned with typical first amendment demonstrations with slight increase in posture. There was an overwhelming belief that a breach or riot was unlikely, not only within USCP but other federal agencies. In the weeks following, during a Congressional hearing, a Member demanded to know how this could happen, and was it lack of information, communication, resources, or more simply “a lack of imagination.”


The absence of imagination is a symptom of blind spot contagion.


Subtle and chronic: A more common example is when a leader often asserts a belief based on their “years of experience” or personal risk tolerance. The leader may directly diminish other possibilities by announcing their preference or indirectly by relying on the slice of research, data, and in-house expertise, inadvertently halting continuous curiosity. I worked for one leader who was driven by their experience and ego, and would often shut down alternative ideas or concerns because they were deemed insignificant. Over time the team stopped seeking the unknown and vocalizing potential issues.


Increased silence is another symptom of blind spot contagion and this leader was patient zero.


Other symptoms include:

  • Impaired decision making

  • Planning shortfalls

  • Misappropriation of resources

  • Reduced trust and confidence

  • Lack of action


What can we do to curb the spread of blind spot contagion?

Whether you are managing a crisis or an organization the remedies are the same. And it's very simple: “I/we have blind spots.” Repeat this before every major decision. Acknowledging and accepting you don’t know all the information or outcome is the equivalent of a vaccine. It seems simple, because it is, but difficult in practice. It requires leaders to be vulnerable by acknowledging they don’t know everything and they own a decision made on partial information.


However, in the absence of this ownership, blind spot contagion prevails and presents itself as “the data indicates or the experts forecast.” When these emerge, it's time for a booster shot.


Here are some actions leaders in crisis or business can do to further protect against this form of contagion:


1. Ask “what are we missing?” at the end of every meeting.


One of my mentors once said “I never thought I would see two planes hit the towers. But here we are. Anything is possible.” I believe this mindset shaped how he led and created stability in a crisis. He always knew there was something he didn’t know. He respected what he didn’t know, in fact he honored it. He led with humility and ended every meeting with “what am I missing?”


Someone always spoke up because he encouraged it. In many ways demanded it of his team. This is how blind spot contagion is prevented.


2. Ask “what is the data not telling us?”


Everyone wants to be data driven. But data has its limits and requires the audience to discern what is true and what is speculation. I suspect the recent tech industry miscalculations were influenced by blind spot contagion. While the trends of the market began to dip, other economic indicators held strong. I suspect early conversations regarding the hiring frenzy raised a few of these potential issues, but decision makers were committed to being data driven and the data did not indicate warnings. In fact many reports and experts couldn’t attribute any warnings or indicators to the economy and market. It wasn’t until the Federal government took action that the situation became more familiar.


Making data driven decisions is important, but remember it's never the full picture. Ask your team to explore what the data and headlines are not saying. Encourage curiosity to find out why an alternative narrative doesn’t exist.


This will transform blind spots into tangible information.


3. Question statements beginning with “it’s unlikely…”


Despite all the warnings, indicators, and formal acts of aggression, there was a common belief that Russia would not invade Ukraine. After reciting Russia’s political posture, rhetoric, and positioning of military assets along the border, most analysts still ended their reports, “however, it is unlikely….” This statement is the equivalent of someone (not wearing a mask) coughing in a crowded room. I understand there is a market for this type of analysis; however, it can lead to false sense of confidence and inhibit an individual or organization’s planning for a situation.


Question these statements and explore their rationale. You may discover a blind spot.


4. Promote imagination and encourage curiosity in crises and your organization.


Off the heels of an intense winter season in New York City, my agency was under intense scrutiny and political pressure from City Hall. If the winter was an indicator, the summer months would really grill us. In addition to our typical summer preparations, I held an ideation session with our on-call team leadership to stretch our imaginations on the possible requests we may receive during a heat emergency. We then focused on solutions and nothing, I mean nothing, was off limits.


The intent of the session was not to solve every potential problem, it was to explore, and ultimately disarm our blind spots.


Applying these boosters will help leaders and organizations better understand and assess the information they receive and don’t receive. We will always have blind spots. There will always be unknowns. Creating a culture that instills imagination and curiosity as a necessary part of the process will curb the spread of the blind spot contagion.




0 comments

Comments


bottom of page