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Cognitive Misers at Work: Interpersonal Laziness

I recently read Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book, No One Understands You and What To Do About It. I absolutely recommend it for folks who are struggling to understand why communication at work is so friggin’ hard. It is highly readable, lots of good stories and loaded with newer social psychology research and a smattering of neuroscience. Most of the concepts are not new but the way she packages it is appealing for the world of work.

Of particular interest to me was the notion of “cognitive miser”. The phrase was coined in the 1980’s to describe the phenomenon of human beings using the bare minimum of their mental energy and processing capacity to draw conclusions. She writes, “We rely on simple, efficient thought processes to get the job done–not so much out of laziness (though there is some of that, too) but out of necessity. There is just too much going on, too much to notice, understand, and act on, for us to give every individual and every occurrence our undivided, unbiased attention…Human thought, like every other complex process, is subject to the speed-versus-accuracy trade-off.” (pg.21) Halvorson uses this notion to shine a light on all the ways this shows up at work to undermine our ability to be known and understood as well as to fully perceive those around us.

It got me thinking about all the shortcuts we take as leaders and colleagues that can sabotage individual and collective success. We quickly grant others positive or negative attribution based on what groups they belong to. Women, men, people of color, managers, executives, assistants, Ivy League, old timer, Millennial etc. Whether through cultural stereotypes, personal experience or upbringing we can all make quick thumbnail assessments of the people around us before we ever have a chance to actually learn more about a person. Even once we get to know each other letting go of those initial prejudgments is hard work.

I’d like to call a halt to this interpersonal laziness. I say lazy because few of us are willing to make the effort to go beyond these automatic responses and truly get to know individuals. Our default is “all women are…” or “the CEO thinks that Jason is…” or “how could a low level staff member possibly understand…”. We need to see each woman as a unique individual and not filter our opinions of people through the leader’s lens and stop assuming that roles define the value of contributions. Here are a couple true stories to illustrate my point.

A CEO needed to hire an in-house counsel. She had a few bad experiences in the past with lawyers so approached this hiring moment with trepidation. The most recent horror was a female lawyer so she unconsciously gravitated towards the male candidates. She selected a man with fancy college degrees and several good positions under his belt. She turned a blind eye to the fact that this attorney changed companies every two years. Even when she asked about this and heard him say that he just wasn’t happy at these places, she pressed forward with an offer. You can see the punch line coming a mile away, right? Within six months it became apparent that this guy was a disaster and it took another six months to remove him.

An African American salesman had figured out how to bundle a set of products to create solutions for his customers. He was way ahead of the pack in this area and his commission reflected the payoff of his strategy. Every time he tried to illustrate his approach to his manager so the department could learn from him, he was shooed away. The word around the office was that he couldn’t be trusted; that he was scamming the system. This noise made it’s way back to the salesman and he decided to leave the company. Within the next several months his manager was trying to get the salesforce to adopt the bundled solutions approach.

Lazy! In both situations the key players didn’t take the time to see and hear beyond some knee jerk assumptions and prejudices.

This happens all day everyday at work.

Leaders and colleagues, please take the time to get to know the people around you AND to share who you are with them. I’ve written here in the past about how powerful it is when we share our stories. That is the only way around this natural, hard wired phenomenon of being a cognitive miser. Mental efficiency is a useful tool but when it is over used it becomes a liability.

So many of us feel misunderstood and under utilized at work. These shortcuts provide one answer to the problem. You might want to try these things:

  • Have lunch dates with colleagues. Meet away from the office and learn about each other. What do you do outside of work? Why did you choose this profession? What is unique about your upbringing? Go past the superficial and share what makes you tick.
  • Ask questions and listen. When you become aware that you are making mental assumptions, ask questions. Counteract your own thought path to hear and integrate new information.
  • Share more in team settings. Try to work against your own typecasting (ie. the digital geek) and speak from other points of view. Surprise people with your breadth of knowledge and insight. And expect the unexpected from others.

It takes time, motivation and effort to move past these simple ways of perceiving others. We also need to take the time to be open about ourselves. The risk of not doing this is huge. Some of your best people will leave, discontentment will reign, communication will suck and the whole place will be operating at a fraction of the power that it could unleash.

I challenge you to take just a couple hours out of your day and pay attention to how frequently you are a cognitive miser. And then try to break the cycle of laziness.

 

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