You Have No Idea (What They’re Thinking)


My friend Cheryl Polk said something to me I’ll never forget, We share the same physical space,” she said, “but we don’t share the same psychological space.” Cheryl’s a psychologist, an African American woman, and she was shedding brilliant light for me on how the very diverse group of Kellogg National Fellows to which she and I belonged could experience and express intensely different perceptions, opinions, and feelings. What might seem self-evident to one person seemed absurd to another. As today’s title suggests, because some people came from an entirely different psychological space, I really had no idea what their words meant.  Cheryl’s succinct explanation could as well reveal how different an oldest child’s perception would be from “the baby’s,” how an extrovert might interpret a boisterous comment in a completely different way than an introvert would. And in the field of leadership and management Cheryls’ comment tears off the veil on which we “followers” and “leaders” think we’re seeing the same things.

I am teaching undergrads at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley. Haas has devised a brilliant pedagogical tool:  In each course undergraduates select two class representatives, and mid-semester those reps get 15 minutes without the instructor in the class to distribute a questionnaire and to receive oral feedback on how the class is going. I met with my two class reps, and the feedback they had gathered was awesome. There was a LOT! And this may seem really stupid, but I wondered: Given how open I (think I) am, why did it take this rather artificial process to achieve this level of feedback? Well, I really don’t care about the answer, do you?

The point is it’s just true; I had no idea what the students were thinking. Parents hardly have a clue what their teenagers are thinking (or for that matter, even what their two year-old’s think). Bosses have all kinds of blind and deaf spots, while they think they have a wide open spectrum of sight and sounds. Sure, good managers do have a “feel” for what folks are thinking, but it’s often general, processed, softened, and packaged. That wasn’t what Justin and Johnny offered me; they gave me the straight-up-stuff from their fellow students. I’m so glad to have a much better sense of the psychological space my students are occupying when they sit before me, and speak, or don’t; work hard, or don’t; innovate and take risks to learn in class, or don’t.

And the vast gap in perception works both ways! This week I was helping a young woman just out of college. She’s applied for tens of jobs. I asked her which organization she thought she’d love to work at. She told me. I told her: Apply again. Or find another way in: send them an article that is relevant to their business, or find a way to find a real person there. Go for it. I told her, “You have to distinguish yourself from the possibly hundreds of other candidates.” And what better way than to demonstrate drive. I saw hesitation on her face. “As an employer, drive is almost always a positive separator for me,” I explained. “A lot of times young people, on the other side of the equation” (As Cheryl would have said: occupying a very different psychological space) “are afraid to look ‘pushy’ or ‘annoying.'” She nodded and said, “yeh, I feel that way,” an affirmation that told me how she was afraid to stand out. And now I could really see how her psychological space was keeping her hidden as a face in a vast crowd. Yet, from my space, as an employer who’s had to look for people, the last thing in the world I would think is “wow, what a pushy kid.” I’d be saying, “Hah, look at how much this young lady knows about us and wants to work here.”

So bosses, parents, teachers, managers, you’ve got to throw out the crazy idea that your people are occupying the same psychological space as you are. Take decisive steps – creating safe space for them to tell you what you really need to know about how they’re perceiving things, so that you can

Lead them with your best self!


  • Many think other people think/feel as they do. Such a perception can and does hinder their success in life and at work.

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  • Psychological space is one component of human relations, and I enjoy looking at each aspect separately, but never depend on only one. Each person has developed a belief system that screens out things you will think are important. The screening goes so far as determining what a person will believe is true.

    I have at times been terribly disappointed by persons I thought I knew, but who turned out to be outright enemies. No matter what their psychological space may be, they may not be wanting a functional relationship. A few times people who I would give useful comments to took the ideas as criticism, or as an attack, returning an attack on me, going as far as personal slander. Politics in the workplace, or any place psychological or otherwise is a difficult world to be in.

    On the whole the people I have helped have been appreciative. They do not reject ideas on how to make things better, but the minority who will turn on a mentor or manager will generally not accept anything but their own ideas.

    The general idea covered in the article, “You have No Idea (What they are thinking) is called theory of mind. I have been at meetings on various issues, when a conversation goes around the table with each person fitting in an explanation of a proposal. It can be a terrible struggle to get everyone understanding exactly what is being proposed and what is not being proposed, but good people will parse through it.

    A second example of this process I have discussed with news reporters – Most reporters will prefer to cover an issue or government committee for the long term, rather than being sent to cover the planning commission now and then, while other reporters take their turns. Or cover an issue like bovine tuberculosis in Michigan deer for the long term, and do not want to cover it for one meeting, or one statement put out by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The reporters not only point out that it takes time to learn about an issue or committee to cover it well, but also it takes time to learn what the actors involved with a committee or issue mean when they use certain words or phrases, or how they think. Without that experience the reporter is at a disadvantage, and may not understand what they are discussing.

  • Your comment on differences of perception are described well in established psychological profile systems such as Myers-Briggs and the DISC system. Leaders and co-workers who understand and pay attention to their own perception profile and the profile of others can interact more effectively and productively if they keep these differences in appropriate perspective on their ‘mindset’ screens as they work with their colleagues, particularly on controversial issues.

  • Dan, Very good discussion. I think feedback is very important and it helps a manager or leader get a feel for the pshchological space of colleagues. I am fortunate to have ongoing discussion with those I lead and we engage in conversation about how to approach a specific problem one of my staff encounters. Also, it enables me to learn from the disucssion as well since I ask them for their view or thought on how to deal with something I may find challenging since the way a manager grows is to allow his or her staff to brainstorm possible outcomes that can benefit the organization as a whole. I feel this approach enables a manager to discover how those he or she leads view various aspects of their environment and what those perspectives mean to the individual. One of the tools that is valuable in this regard was the Vision and Values Concept which you promoted and developed for state employees. The MI 360 provided a great window to let the manager view the pschycological space of those being led and to learn from the feedback provided by staff who participated in the review of their manager/supervisor.

  • Reminds me of a Linda A. Hill quote on interpersonal judgment from “On Becoming a Manager.” The new manager says: “It took me three months to realize I had no effect on many of my people. It was like I had been talking to myself.”

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