A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 13th, 2014 by William

A Firm Grasp of the Obvious

Jeff Bezos once gave the advice, “Maintain a firm grasp of the obvious at all times.” He may have offered this quip jokingly or in all seriousness–I don’t know the exact context of the remark–however we all know that in joking there’s usually a lot of truth. The fact is this is probably the most truthful advice one can get. It means being observant to what’s going on around you, but the fact is I’m not sure that most people actually do have a firm grasp of the obvious. For most of us, the more subtle nuances (the details) of our observations (our reality) are far beyond our capabilities to completely capture, let alone remember.

Bezos is not the only person use this phrase–I’ve heard it used throughout my career. I’ve used it before to humorously point out to someone that whatever they’ve observed really is only just the obvious. This is the most common way you’ll hear the phrase, i.e., sarcastically. I’ve also used it in a self-deprecative manner–especially when I’ve missed something right in front of my face. Fact is we all do that–miss things right in front of our face. It explains why “eye-witness” testimony can’t always be trusted.

You’d think that grasping the obvious would be intuitive, almost instinctual, but I’d venture to guess that since having a firm grasp of the obvious is not very prevalent in our personal everyday lives then it’s certainly not prevalent in the business environment. I know we all think that when at work we’re different animals–somehow more observant and in control but the fact is we’re not very observant at all.

Truly having a firm grasp of the obvious at all times would be a very important trait to have if we want to be a success in our career. To be able to recognize what others miss would be a great leg-up. We think we do but we really don’t. That’s unfortunate because most business problems find their solutions in the obvious not some off the wall, “outside the box” (one of my favorite worthless buzz-phrases) solution. I’ve made the case many times before that “thinking inside the box” i.e., paying attention to what’s right in front of you and obvious is a better day-to-day strategy than the pie-in-the-sky, meaningless, advice “think outside the box.”

We’ve all seen those tests where people are shown something (a picture for example) and then later asked to describe what they saw. Of course most people will offer a description different from what’s in the picture. This is called The Rashomon Effect.

Rashomon is a 1950 Japanese crime mystery film that exemplifies the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection. It’s a treatise on having a firm grasp of the obvious. The movie unfolds in flashback shortly after a crime is committed on a couple in which the husband, a Japanese nobleman, is murdered and his wife is raped. There are four individuals−the perpetrator, the wife, the murdered husband, and a nameless observer−that witness the horrific crime. Each then recounts the crime with absolute honesty; however, in mutually contradictory ways. The viewer is left wondering which of the four witnesses is telling the truth.

If we really acknowledge how important it is to have a firm grasp of the obvious companies would be testing candidate employees on their ability to notice the obvious. Thus having a firm grasp of the obvious should be a job requirement and thus part of the interview and vetting process for new employees. Unfortunately it’s not. Instead most companies are worried whether a candidate is “creative” or “proactive” or that they’re “a team player.” I’d be willing to bet that if you saw the requirement, “Must have a firm grasp of the obvious” in a job description you’d probably think that whoever wrote it was being a smart-ass.

Since I mentioned it, “proactive” is my all-time favorite of all the buzzwords that are flung around the workplace these days. It implies that to be a proactive person is to be some superhero that can see problems, and thus be able to solve them, before they actually become problems. Fact is I don’t know how you can be proactive if you can’t see the obvious right in front of you. Having a firm grasp of the obvious is partly about being able to recognize things that “have changed” and being proactive is about identifying things that “need to be changed.” So if you’re not very good at recognizing what’s already changed it seems tough to me that you can “proactively” identify what needs to be changed.

Of all the talents and skills that are needed to be a success in our careers what most, if not all, of us need the most is, “a firm grasp of the obvious.”

So what exactly makes us many times miss what’s obvious in front of us yet, much to our embarrassment, is clearly seen by others? The answer is that we all primarily live in our preconceived notion of reality and go through our day oblivious to what’s really going on around us–certainly the “details” of what’s going on around us. We have certain expectations of how things should be and when they’re not we sometimes miss identifying them completely.

Part of the reason for this can be found in what’s called the “normalcy bias.” This bias refers to the mental state people enter when facing any disruption in their notion of reality–or how they think things should be. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of deviations occurring and certainly their possible effects. The result is that people fail to adequately prepare for the possibility of any disruptions in their daily routine. This explains why your boss is probably afraid of surprises.

This bias also helps explain why sociopathic bosses tend to be micromanagers–they are so terrified that something bad will happen (that’ll upset their apple cart) that even when you are assigned a task, and are fully capable to perform it successfully on your own, the boss will feel the need to oversee and critique everything you do and thus make your life miserable.

Of course, the opposite of the normalcy bias would be overreaction, or “worst-case thinking bias,” in which small deviations from normality are dealt with as signaling an impending catastrophe. This explains why your boss may be a pyromaniac–running around lighting fires thus keeping everyone in a constant state of crisis. Pyromaniacs see everything as a problem needing to be somehow solved.

Our inability to see the obvious is also caused in part by the way our brains process new observations. Research suggests that even when the brain is calm it takes 8–10 seconds to process new information. With the fast pace of the modern workplace no wonder we miss things–by the time our brain can process and acknowledge the obvious we’ve already had to move on to something else–some problem or task we need to perform. This is why multitasking is truly a myth. When our brain cannot find an acceptable response to a situation, it fixates on a default solution–what we expect reality to be–which may or may not be correct.

Research also suggests that stress slows the brain process even further. Show me any modern workplace where stress isn’t a part of everyone’s daily routine. The more dysfunctional an organization, the more stress its inhabitants have to cope with, thus slowing their brains down even more. No wonder we all struggle to have a firm grasp of the obvious.

Assuming we admit to it, overcoming our normalcy bias is something most of us would have to work hard to eliminate. That’s because it takes time and practice to train ourselves to be more observant. My advice: Just realize that to be better in your job you really need to concentrate more on your immediate reality, i.e., the obvious. Being highly observant takes practice yet it’s something few of us consciously try to proactively practice on a daily basis.

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