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Surgeons, Supervisors, and Self Awareness

Lately I’ve been reading about the types of systematic mistakes and errors of judgment that plague human beings, but that we’re either unaware of or don’t bother to correct. While we can live with ourselves for misplacing the car keys three days a week, there are some mistakes that have much more serious consequences. One particularly grave example comes from the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Doctors there went back and checked the previous “normal” X-rays of patients who had developed lung cancer. They found that up to 90 percent of the tumors were visible in the old X-rays. 90 percent! They also found that the cancers were visible for months or even years, but that the radiologists had simply missed them.

Next time you get good news from your doctor, you might want to consider a second opinion to your second opinion.

So what does this have to do with Versatility or leadership effectiveness? Plenty. Leaders have serious errors of perception (I’ll get to that in a moment). But there are fixes for these errors. Before you run away from your medical professionals, there is some good news. Anesthesiologists decided they had to do something about all the deaths that were occurring in the operating room, so they swallowed their pride and took the very simple step of creating a checklist of tasks to perform during every procedure. Also, they trained the rest of the medical staff, especially nurses, to speak up if they noticed anything amiss. The results have been astounding. Patient deaths due to anesthesia have declined over the past 20 years from one in 5,000 to one every 200,000 to 300,000 cases. 

Like anesthesiologists of yesteryear, managers, it turns out, are self-deluding. It’s not their fault; we all think we’re better than we really are. In an ongoing article for Harvard Business Review, Robert Sutton has been writing about the things good bosses believe. The first thing he discusses is how bosses’ lack of self-awareness contributes to organizational dysfunction. The major remedy, of course, is to get feedback and to consciously monitor our behavior and the impact it has on followers and others. 

You can read Dr. Sutton’s article here.

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