Inattentional Blindness-Why we Miss the Obvious

I regularly conduct workshops for managers teaching them what is sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying and then more importantly how to identify these behaviours at work AND most importantly what to then do about it.

In the course of the training I talk about imaginary people and the mistakes they make, one of them being Joe, a manager who doesn’t pick up that one of his staff has a problem, even though the signs are there, such as his staff person taking sick leave, coming to work late, not getting all of their work done etc. At this point someone in the group usually says that Joe would have picked these things up and then had a chat to his staff to find out what was wrong.

But in the real world would he have noticed?

Mike House, a speaking colleague of mine, and great observer of life wrote in his weekly newsletter this article which I am posting, with his permission, because it explains clearly why the manager probably wouldn’t have picked up something was wrong…more importantly Mike gives some great tips on how to tune in so as to notice.

Have you ever had the disconcerting experience of noticing something for the first time and realising that it has been there for ages?

I was driving in Perth recently and I happened to glance up at a particular point in the road. Square in my view there was a building. I’d never seen it before.

And yet there it was… Unmistakable.

I drive the route often enough that at some point there would have even been construction work going on, and yet I missed that too.

It’s not like the building is obscure. There’s a pretty loud colour scheme and it’s a multi story glass covered monolith of a thing. All the same, until that day, it was invisible to my eyes.

You would have had similar experiences I’m sure.

So what’s going on when a rational, observant and intelligent human being like you or me, can miss something that’s so visible and obvious in our environment.

The phenomenon is called Inattentional Blindness. If you google the term you’ll find some interesting video tests that demonstrate it at work.

You see we can only pay attention to a certain amount of information coming through our senses at any one time. It’s not as if the other info (like a large building) is not there.

Our attention is simply elsewhere. We miss the obvious because we are not paying attention to it.

It’s one of the reasons that mobile phone use in cars is so unsafe. Our attention is to focused on the device, so things that would be otherwise very obvious on the road escape our attention.

Most of the time Inattentional Blindness is not an issue. It causes some interesting moments when we see something for the first time and realise it’s been there for ages. No harm done.

Sometimes we may be missing critical information. Subtle cues from people around us… Changes in the operating conditions for our business… Important aspects of our personal relationships… can all go unnoticed – sometimes with large and ongoing consequences.

What can we do to ensure that the impact is minimised as far as possible?
Awareness – Simply being aware that it is possible to miss often large and obvious elements, makes it more likely that we will see them when needed. We’ll also be more open to accepting the observations of others, even if they disagree with our own.

Broad Team – Different people notice different types of things. Something that instantly attracts your attention may be invisible to me. A diverse group of people in our team makes it less likely that important elements will go unnoticed.

Safe Environment – We have to make it possible for people to bring their observations to our attention without fear of reprisals.

Scan Widely – Deliberate efforts to scan the environment widely will assist you to notice more.

Checklists – For situations where it is critical that particular elements have your attention at the right time, create checklists and systems to assist