Have managers really learned since the time of the Romans?

Travelling recently to a family function I came across a description of a medical condition that I was unaware of. This condition first documented in Roman times, known as Anton Syndrome, affects the visual centres of the brain. Quite simply, a person with this condition is physically blind, yet continues to believe that they can see. Patients have described thinking that they are simply in a dark room, or in a tunnel. They are essentially blind to their blindness.

It got me thinking about the realities of the professional world. Is there an intellectual or managerial equivalent to Anton Syndrome?

How often have you found yourself asking the question “can’t the managers see what is going on? What are they blind?”?

This question, or some variant of it, seems to be found in every organisation that I work with. There is common thread, when you step back and look at the why of it all.

All of us at some time, and senior people are no exception (the clue is in the “all of us”) are sometimes blind to our blindness. This is not to say that this is a Dunning Kruger issue (that is a different conversation). It simply means that we sometimes don’t know, or choose not to see, alternatives to the approach that we first support. In many cases though, senior people are afraid to admit this uncertainty, or the possibility that they may not have the best path forward on an issue.

Psychological safety describes an environment where people feel safe to speak up, to challenge convention, to support the application of values in the face of “group think”. It also supports the idea that it is OK to make a mistake or to fail to achieve a goal if you have made a considered attempt to do the right thing.

When we set out to achieve something we need to pursue excellence; to strive to do things well. In that, though, is a real risk that we may not; that we may fall short of the target or miss it altogether. The reality of what it takes to get there may be completely unknown to us, or we are not experienced enough to understand the work involved. In a recent example I was confronted with the statement “this is taking longer than we expected”. My simple response, respectfully, was “on what basis did you establish your expectation? What are you comparing this activity to?”.

Simply wishing for an outcome does not get you there. Wanting a cake to bake in 5 minutes doesn’t suddenly speed up the oven for a perfectly risen, light and fluffy sponge.

When it comes to successful outcomes we must all be prepared to look for the blind spots. To encourage different perspectives and recognise that we don’t have all of the answers. Not even if you have a fancy title like manager or director! Be open to the fact that you may be blind to your blindness and encourage others to help you to see clearly.

Supporting people at all levels to bring forward ideas and to question those in charge is healthy. It promotes innovation and reduces acrimonious conflict in the workplace. Managers who admit the possibility of fallibility and seek support are many times more likely to receive support from their teams, even before they realise they need it. More importantly, if people feel safe in coming forward with improvements or concerns that things might not work, your organisation gains many eyes and ears looking out for everyone’s best interests.

Maybe we can learn more from the Romans who first identified this blindness to blindness. Especially if we also remember from the slave who was commissioned to whisper daily into Julius Caesar’s ear “remember though art mortal!”.

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Nathan Jones

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