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Fighting Off Dreaded Tunnel Vision!

What is tunnel vision?

In the context of leadership, tunnel vision is simply a failure to see the big picture. It happens when our brain filters information, sending information that fits our desired outcome into our sphere of awareness. All other information is held for further triage.

This phenomenon can result in us focusing on a single idea or opinion to the exclusion of all others. Information that supports our idea or opinion is raised in value (significance), whereas anything that conflicts with it is minimized or overlooked. 

Tunnel vision can quickly lead to failure resulting from flawed thinking, overconfidence, a need to win, or individuals sharing selective information amongst other things.

Typical tunnel vision performance traps

When life becomes hectic, we often spend far too little time thinking (or reflecting on “things”). That tends to result in us putting too much emphasis on one aspect of an idea or opinion and failing to recognize alternatives. This type of tunnel vision tends to result in poor decision-making.

A second example is overconfidence. For example, an entrepreneur starting up a business may be biased by their overconfidence such that risks are dismissed, adequate funding is lacking, and critical resources are scarce. This increases the risk that the start-up will actually fail.

There are, of course, many other causes for tunnel vision. It can follow from capability gaps (training or education), stress, inflexible approaches, or time constraints. All of these causes are generally tied to behaviour. The good news is they can be solved!

How mindset intersects with tunnel vision

What is a mindset? It’s a mental attitude or disposition that foretells an individual’s reaction to, response to, or interpretation of something. For example, if I tell myself that I can’t run 100m in under 12 seconds, then I won’t. My mindset will drive my training, my behaviour and that will determine the outcome. It follows that an unhelpful mindset can foster and then perpetuate destructive tunnel vision.

The trick to influencing our mindset is making conscious changes in the way we do things. For instance, if my day is stressful, chaotic, and overworked then a meaningful change could be taking micro-breaks for myself (like a 10-minute coffee break outside, or a 15-minute walk in the park) throughout the day. These small changes can break unhealthy behaviours and tunnel vision.

There are several other mechanisms to shift our mindset, including using visualization, storytelling (in vivid detail), or faking it until we make it (aka role modeling). How do we untangle the patterns between our mindset from our behaviours?

Untangling Mindset and Behaviours

Our frame of mind (or mindset) leads to our behaviour, which in turn leads to actions, which then produce an outcome. We can untangle mindset and behaviour by reverse engineering the steps that created the undesirable outcome. You may wonder why we use an outside inside approach – it is because mindsets lie beneath the surface, so it takes care to work into these hidden areas.

Reverse engineering outcomes to identify the source of tunnel vision. Copyright D. Wray, 2021

Effectively, by working backward and identifying the patterns (cause and effect) for each step in the process that led to the undesirable outcome it allows us to determine what new mindset is needed. Once we know what is needed, we can establish ways to adopt it. 

The process of changing our mindset is one that occurs gradually and incrementally, a little like a boat that tacks in response to the wind. A little patience and perseverance go a long way towards success!

Reducing tunnel vision

How does this all tie together to help us reduce dreaded tunnel vision? There are several things that we can each do, as individuals or leaders, to help ourselves:

  • Extend our field of awareness within the environment around us, both personally and professionally
  • Sharpen our recall ability, the ability to recall important facts later when we need them
  • Think several steps ahead, beyond what is on the plate right now
  • Recognize our mindset and adapt it when it no longer proves useful
  • Develop an ability to identify early warning signs 
  • Understand ourselves and the environment within which we operate
  • Look at issues or problems from different perspectives or in a different way

Final Thoughts

By understanding and then controlling our mindset, we can alter our behaviour which in turn changes the outcomes we experience. The first step is awareness….the next step is up to each of us!

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on how you prevent tunnel vision from creeping into your professional life.

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