You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.

Quit Putting People in Boxes

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Even though most of the pieces on this site feature tables that compare and contrast ideas or traits while putting them in boxes, I do not, in principle, believe in the practice of categorizing people by putting them in boxes. I know that assigning qualities or attributes to individuals based on things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is popular with some organizations, but I don’t believe that it is important at all when organizing for change.

I’m not the only one out there who questions the value of such practices. In an article in Psychology Today, titled “Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die,” Dr. Adam Grant, author of the bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, writes:

“. . . in the MBTI, thinking and feeling are opposite poles of a continuum. In reality, they’re independent: we have three decades of evidence that if you like ideas and data, you can also like people and emotions. (In fact, more often than not, they go hand in hand: research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.)”

For a fairly concise academic article that looks at the scientific validity of MBTI, see “Measuring the MBTI… And Coming Up Short” by David J. Pittenger. One of the conclusions Pittenger comes to is:

“The MBTI reminds us of the obvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can be fit neatly into one of 16 boxes. I believe that MBTI attempts to force the complexities of human personality into an artificial and limiting classification scheme. The focus on the “typing” of people reduces the attention paid to the unique qualities and potential of each individual.”

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Leaders who believe that they can create an effective team by making sure that they have people of every profile “type” are setting themselves up for missed opportunities resulting from the failure to uncover the hidden assets in the people with whom they are collaborating. Thinking that people fit some imaginary profile might lead to limiting expectations.

Preconceived notions of what people can do, and how they can grow and develop will keep things from happening, not make them happen. It is the systematic marginalization of people. This is the opposite of what a leader should do. Leaders see people at the sidelines, and invite them in as full participants in an endeavor.

Asset Mapping: a Better Option

Test-determined categorization should not be confused with asset mapping. Asset mapping is not categorizing and labeling people by “type.” Asset mapping looks at people who may have been told that they have limited value based on their type, and finds the value in their unique contradictions, their failure to fit molds, their creativity, and the exceptional perspectives that they bring to the table.

Since mobilizing people around asset mapping is based on discovery, social capital, and relationship development, it flourishes in a culture of blurred lines. It takes people out of boxes and explores the energy and creativity that emerges from not having to be the type of person you were artificially designated to be.

For more on asset-based approaches and asset mapping see the posts, Asset-Focused Leadership, and Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations.