The Power of Noticing

Noticing information that others do not often involves breaking barriers or rules and norms, some of which need to be broken. If you have a vested self interest in a situation, it is difficult to approach it without some bias. We are all disinclined to speak against those who influence our work or our occupations and many times we don't want to acknowledge that our plans could be going south.

We have all seen situations where there is systematic failure to notice other's unethical behaviors when it is not in our best interest to do so--think of what is going on with Boeing right now:

1. A great example of this was an issue at a major university when they found out a coach was abusing at-risk children. And nobody knew anything about this scandalous behavior? The leaders had worked together for years, they knew each other very well and had a responsibility to one another, to the school, and most importantly to the children and their families. Still, to preserve the reputation of the school and the athletics program, they looked away until they couldn't any longer.

2. When a board realizes that there are financial concerns for the organization but overlooks the fact that the leadership has begun to use endowment funds to support ongoing operations? And continued to do so until there was no money left? And nobody noticed? Nobody said anything? Well, they noticed, for sure.

3. When an entire staff leaves an organization without any exit is in the best interest of the organization's leader to imply a different reason for their departure other than the existing toxic culture or lack of genuine organizational vision. It is more beneficial to publicize a different reason to the remaining staff and board, one that benefits the leader in the face of a genuine loss. Why didn't senior management notice and ask questions? Simply easier not too, despite the cost.

4. The idea of noticing can even occur with our children. While the child has somewhat decreased interactions and does not seem as happy...well...the other four kids in the family clamor for attention. Then grades come out and the school calls. The child is a victim of bullying by fellow classmates...if only I had noticed sooner, the parents say.

But what about our prospects and donors? Sometimes not noticing occurs with them as well.

I remember the donor who said he was going to make a major gift and had multiple meetings with staff about what he wanted to do...agreed to chair a gala with his wife one year and talked a great deal about doing something financially significant. However, he just never made a move in that direction despite our prompts. His stated intentions didn't seem consistent with his behavior. While our hopes remained high our spirits were really dampened as each week passed...we felt something was wrong but couldn't bring ourselves to ask him. Then came the day when he brought us a check for $10,000 and announced that he was retiring from his job and moving west. Oh, very sad day. We just wanted to believe that he was going to do something significant and then....but all the clues were mounting. We just didn't want to notice.

Or the volunteer who is so sure that the gift she was soliciting would result in $1,000,000. You want to believe because there is so much that can be done with such a gift. She finds someone who will introduce her to the major prospect, but that someone is not interested in giving to the charity. You still want to believe, but just can't do so as easily now. Then the prospect doesn't want to meet to discuss the idea--just feels that this charity is not in his wheelhouse...such disappointment. The wheels were now off our bumper car! While we noticed all of these issues, we just wanted to hope and believe...but...overconfidence is the issue and we all have a great deal of company in this.

When one is tied to an organization and when there is a vested interest, there is "motivated blindness," a failure to notice unethical behavior or the reality of a challenging situation. It happens to all of us. When we are providing oversight on any situation and things just don't seem right, it is easy to ignore the situation...we have a vested interest.

I remind myself that to be successful you have to prevent surprises...a good leader at home or at the office notices details and takes appropriate action...a good leader shares important truths with others...a good leader is responsible for calling out reality.

Special thanks to Max Bazerman and his book, The Power of Noticing What the Best Leaders See, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

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