We all have filters. That’s a good thing–our cognitive systems can’t process all the data that’s available. But most people filter out useful information as well as extraneous information (for example, the size of loops in the carpet or shoe styles). What any one person filters depends on his preferences for big picture vs. detail processing, intake style (verbal, visual, tactile) and training.
Filtering Out, Without Awareness
However, filters cause big problems when people are oblivious to their own.
Here’s a striking example from a project I worked on.
The project manager, Ted, announced the top three priorities at a daily meeting. I offered a different view point. “You’re wrong,” Ted declared. “We decided on these priorities yesterday.” Ted didn’t notice six out of eight people at the table shaking their heads “No.”
Ted didn’t notice the responses and reactions of people around him. He also didn’t notice that he didn’t notice.
Ted deprived himself of the choice to notice people’s reactions. Ted expressed surprise when people “resisted” or “backtracked” on decisions. He didn’t pick up on the fact that after he made a few sharp criticisms, people stopped offering ideas.
People who lack self-awareness don’t realize their own observational biases or notice the impact of their behavior. They wonder why things don’t work well (or work well) but fail to see their part in the situation.
One relatively small action by a manager can send ripples or shockwaves through a system. Ted’s lack of self-awareness suppressed the groups effectiveness. Some people ignored Ted’s dictates and did what they thought was right–splintering the group’s effort. Others left for positions where they could participate in solving problems rather than carrying out the managers prescriptions, driving turnover.
Hierarchy amplifies biases. Therefore, it behooves all of us, and especially people in leadership and management roles, to build their awareness and find their filters.
Practice Noticing Your Filters
Learning about your own filters builds self-awareness. Knowing what you tend to filter allows you to choose to ignore that information or make a conscious choice to notice it.
Here are two exercises to build awareness of your own filters.
1. Work with a colleague who has different type preferences or a different sensory intake style. Make an agreement to share observations after meetings or working sessions. What does your colleague consistently notice that you miss? What do you miss by missing that?
Work on noticing those things that you have missed up until now. Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.
2. Reflect on a recent meeting. Did you notice anything about the flow of conversation? For example, in what order do people speak? Who interrupts whom, and how often? Did you notice anything about physical arrangements? Or who is on their iPhone? Did you notice what emotions came up?
Choose an aspect of human behavior that you normally don’t notice. Then, practice noticing. Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.
Noticing what you don’t notice is part of honing your powers of observation.