When you aren’t sure how to get from one place to another, you’re likely to pull out a GPS device, plug in the address you’re looking for, and voilà! the device starts telling you where to go. GPS systems can do that because they have maps with three critical sets of information: they know where you are; they know where you want to go; and they know the territory between the two. If any of these pieces of information is flawed you’re in trouble. If they’re only slightly flawed, the trouble isn’t serious. But the further the information in the GPS varies from the actual world, the worse off you are. At some point it becomes bad enough that you’d be better of without the GPS.
Like GPS systems, we hold “maps” or “pictures” of how the world is in our minds. These maps serve as GPS systems for our lives. Sometimes they get us right where we want to be, and sometimes they get us hopelessly lost. More than once I have found that my own attitudes and beliefs made a relationship difficult, as much as I wanted to blame the other person for a conflict or argument we were having.
Everything you do in life is based on your understanding of the world around you – corresponding to the maps in the GPS system; how you see yourself in relationship to the world around you – corresponding to the GPS’s understanding of where you are in the world; and what you want to accomplish – corresponding to the GPS’s understanding of where you want to go. And like the GPS, the less accurately you understand where you are, how the world is, and where you want to go, the harder it will be for you to successfully navigate your life.
Anne, a client of mine, leads an IT team that is tasked with rolling out large software systems inside a global company. She was assigned as the technology leader for a major new system that was planned for the Marketing Department of the company’s Latin America Division. She was told it was a major initiative of vital importance to the company. The head of the Marketing Department in the Latin America Division had recently been replaced; Leo, the new head, had been in place for about three months.
Anne knew that a large project for Leo’s department had ended in failure shortly before he took over. The failure produced significant financial costs to the department and nothing to show for it. The IT leader who had led that effort had handled the project very badly and had been let go. When Anne was assigned to lead the new project she quickly reached out and left a voice mail for Leo, asking to set up a conference call to discuss the new system. Anne is quite direct in her communications and her message was short and to the point, saying she was leading the project and she’d like to make sure she and Leo were aligned around the project deliverables. Leo did not reply for a week, and when he did it was with a short email saying he had not had time to review the project.
Things went downhill from there; Anne found Leo extremely difficult to work with. Her experience was that IT projects went much better when she and her team were involved early in the project requirements phase, helping the business people understand what technology could do for them. But Leo seemed to block every effort on Anne’s part to get involved. Anne does not like to waste time and she hates inefficiency; she let Leo know she was frustrated and that if he continued to block her she would be hampered in her ability to deliver a successful system.
Compared to what goes in a human mind, the information in a GPS system is pretty simple, consisting of physical location codes and maps of physical roads. GPS systems are unaffected by moods, emotions, and intentions. They just analyze the data they’ve got and arrive at a conclusion based on a simple set of rules that are programmed in. Our minds are much more complex, and the internal maps we have of where we are, where we want to go, and how the world is, are constantly updating themselves based on our internal physical, emotional and intellectual states.
After several months of fruitless back and forth with Leo, Anne’s internal map told her she was in hostile terrain and was dealing with a rude and uncooperative individual who was jeopardizing a project of critical strategic importance to the company. Her internal sense of where she was in the relationship was that she was not trusted, was being treated poorly, and that her professional identify was threatened.
When Leo came into his new role the Marketing Department was in disarray. The failed IT project was just one of many breakdowns the department had experienced over the course of a couple of years under their former leader. The Latin American Division of the company had been losing money, and the Marketing Department’s poor leadership and management was seen as a primary source of the problem. He quickly realized he would have to replace most of his leadership team. To top it all off he had never worked in Latin America before, and was struggling with understanding the culture.
When Anne reached out to him, Leo was not aware that there was a new technology project planned. He had heard stories of the previously failed attempt to implement a new system. He wrongly assumed that Anne had led that project, and was attempting to revive it. He saw her as part of the failed past that he was trying to help the Department recover from. His maps were quite different from Anne’s.
For six months Anne and Leo sent emails back and forth. In spite of Anne’s repeated attempts to get him on the phone Leo never responded to those requests. Each of them formed increasingly negative opinions about the other.
I had worked with both Anne and Leo before all of this happened. I knew them both to be good, hard working individuals and effective leaders. They both care deeply about the company they work for and want to forge high functioning, effective relationships with everyone they interact with. And yet when Anne’s boss asked me to help with their relationship, they each believed it would be impossible to work with the other. When I listened to their opinions of one another I felt as though they were describing individuals I had never met.
Maps needed to be adjusted. Adjusting your internal maps is not as easy as updating the maps in your GPS. That’s just a data swap; adjusting your internal maps requires humility, introspection, creativity and compassion – traits that we all agree are desirable, yet also ones that are difficult to cultivate, especially in the fast-paced, high stress world many of us live in.
The maps you use to navigate your life – maps of your relationships with friends and family; your job; how to manage your money – are made up of ideas, shaped by emotions and physical sensations, so they are fluid and dynamic. They are not maps of a concrete world that can be measured to whatever degree of accuracy you want. This has both strengths and challenges: strengths because you can quickly adapt your maps to be more useful as you gather more information, and to reflect a changing world; challenges because there’s no solid ground to determine how accurate your maps are. And sometimes forces inside of you – e.g., anger, resentment, fear, or deep-set beliefs about how the world is – can reshape the maps without you even being aware it’s happening.
The constant reworking of the maps in your mind is the result of the feedback loops that are constantly running inside of you, driven by the fundamental loop running among body, emotion, and intellect. If your emotional state goes from angry to curious, the map you have of your relationship with the person you’re talking to will change, perhaps from a map of an antagonistic relationship to a map of a collaborative relationship. That new map will reveal new ways of responding to and interacting with the person you are talking to.
Your map of your relationship with another person is based on your map of who you think they are, and your map of who you think you are. None of us ever has either of these maps perfectly accurate. In my relationship with my wife and children I am constantly learning new things about them and about myself, and as I learn, my maps change, becoming more accurate and useful (or less accurate and useful, if I am not willing to let go of old beliefs and emotional states).
Intentionally reworking the map of your relationship with another person is a powerful way to quickly change the dynamics of your interactions. But doing so requires you to be aware of what your current map is, and of the forces inside of you that are defining it. So when I started working with Anne and Leo on their relationship, the first thing I did was have a conversation with each of them individually, in which they described to me their interactions with one another. That informed us of the current map each of them held. We then explored the relationship they would like to have with each other, suspending their negative beliefs about the other person and assuming they would be open to a new kind of relationship.
That conversation caused each of them to begin putting aside the beliefs and emotions that had grown over the past six months and replace them with beliefs and emotions focused on a positive relationship. New, alternate maps were beginning to emerge, though trust was not yet part of the landscape. As I finished my one-on-one conversations with Anne and Leo I asked each of them if they would be open to a conversation with the other person about the relationship they would like to forge, and explore the possibility of building that relationship. They both agreed, though both were hesitant and somewhat fearful of the encounter, convinced that the other person would not be genuinely open to it. Anne in particular believed that Leo would not be honest about his true feelings; she had developed a belief that he was always looking to increase his own power over others, and didn’t care much about the quality of relationships.
The next conversation was critical; it was important to experience each other as fully as possible. Given that they were in offices thousands of miles apart and couldn’t meet face to face, I set the meeting up as a video conference, and asked each of them to come prepared to talk more about what they wanted than what had happened. It’s not that talking about the past isn’t important; sometimes you really do need to clear the air. But focusing your attention there can solidify your beliefs and feelings about what happened and make it difficult to move on. I asked Leo to go first, but to talk only about the relationship he’d like to have with Anne.
Anne was surprised to learn that Leo sincerely wanted to develop an effective relationship with Anne. He wasn’t the power monger she had imagined. Her map was morphing as she listened to Leo and asked a few questions. When it was her turn to speak she trusted Leo more than she had at the start of the conversation, and consequently she spoke more openly than she had originally intended. She described the relationship she wanted with Leo – one of trust, alignment and collaboration. By the time she was done they had both adjusted their maps of each other quite a bit, and were feeling hopeful about the relationship they could forge.
We then moved on to exploring what had prevented them from forming that relationship from the start – in other words, what had distorted their maps. We didn’t dwell a long time on this, but it was important that they each understood what they had done that had triggered misinterpretations on the other person’s part. It was also important that they each understand how they had misinterpreted the other – in other words, they each examined their own behaviors that triggered a negative reaction in the other, and they examined their own negative reactions that were triggered by the other. These are the two ways you can alter the maps that are forming in yourself and in others – by recognizing that if you change your behavior, you will trigger a different response in the other person; and by recognizing that regardless of how the other person behaves, you always have a choice about how you will interpret and react to their behavior.
Even when your brain is running in programmed mode on an unconscious level, not affected by emotions, beliefs or intentions, its maps are not always accurate. This is easily seen with optical illusions. Consider the images below, that I shot with my phone, looking down the hallway to my home office:
The images all look as though they are shot from somewhat different angles; the walls in the images on the left do not appear parallel to the corresponding walls in the images on the right – the walls on the right seem angled more to the right than they do in the images on the left. And the walls in the images on the bottom seem to slant down more than they do in the images on the top. But in fact they are all the same image. If you print them and lay them on top of each other you will see that they are identical. But your brain has deeply embedded rules about how to interpret visual data, and sometimes those rules do not create an accurate image in your brain.
Why does the brain do this? Well, the brain is constantly processing vast amounts of information – some estimates are that our bodies take in around 11 million bits of information per second, and that the conscious mind can only process somewhere between 4 and 11 bits of information per second. To handle the huge amount of data that’s constantly streaming in, the brain has to have some hard and fast rules it can rely on without consciousness being involved. Otherwise our consciousness would be consumed with simply figuring out how to make sense of the visual data we perceive.
One of those rules is that if the brain looks at an image that represents three dimensions, and that image has two parallel lines receding in the distance, it expects them to converge – like the two sides of the hallway in any one of the single images above appear to do. They appear to converge because as you move up the image, the two lines do in fact get closer together in the image. The angle formed at your eye by the two walls gets smaller and smaller as you look further down the hall. But the line formed where the left hand wall meets the floor in the images on the left does not converge with the same line in the images on the right, even though the lines are in fact parallel. Because the brain expects them to appear to converge if they are parallel, it assumes they are not parallel and concludes that they must diverge, thus creating the illusion that the lines in the right hand images are angled more to the right than the corresponding lines on the left. So your brain takes the left and right images, assumes the line between the left hand wall and the floor in the right hand image must be diverging from the corresponding line in the left hand image, and that’s what it looks like to you. And you don’t have any choice about it. Even thought I fully understand what is happening, the lines will never look parallel to me.
The rules in your brain are sophisticated enough to be able to differentiate between 2D and 3D images. If it sees an image that it believes is a three dimensional image, it will create the illusion in the pictures of my hallway. But if it sees an image that it believes is 2D it has no problem accurately perceiving lines as parallel. To see what I’m talking about, look at the following four images:
The lines in the above images were created by drawing over the lines where the wall meets the floor in my hallway picture – they are the same lengths, and lie at the same angles, as the lines in the photo. It’s obvious that the left-hand lines are all parallel, and the right hand lines are all parallel, as are the lines that are immediately above and below each other. So the rules in your brain sometimes accurately represent reality, and other times don’t. Fortunately for us, for navigating the physical world the built-in rules work extremely well.
People often react to optical illusions by saying something like “Isn’t that weird” or “Isn’t that clever,” without ever considering the profound implications of what they are experiencing. An optical illusion is a way of actually experiencing how your brain works, separate from the reality it perceives, and actually experiencing how it can distort reality. More than just the science of how they work, optical illusions have much to teach us about ourselves and how we interpret the world in which we live.
If your brain can make such mistakes on something as vital to life as accurately processing visual information, consider how easy it is for your brain to generate even more mistakes with information that has much more variation in the world. With rules that are less hard-wired – like the subtleties of how we interpret facial expression, tone of voice, phrasing in an email, and gesture of a speaker that add so much to how we interpret what that person is saying – misinterpretation becomes much more likely. Add to that all of the layers of interpretation that get generated by the emotional state, physical state, beliefs, personal history and desires of the listener, and it’s amazing that communication works at all. And not so surprising that it creates as many problems as it does in our lives and our work.
What does this have to do with how you navigate your life, and how well you perform at work? Everything you experience is processed through rules in your mind that determine how you will interpret the experience. This is as true of how you experience your colleague’s comments in a meeting as it is of your perception of the walls in the picture of my hallway. But because your brain is so sophisticated and complex, and must handle so much at an unconscious level, it’s difficult to see that it really does have rules that guide its behavior. Perceptual illusions helps us see and experience, very directly, the rules the brain uses. That, in turn, helps us begin looking for other rules we use for interpreting experience.
It’s nice to think we don’t really have “rules” for how to treat other people and interact with them, that we are truly at choice about what we say and do. But everyone has had the experience of saying something they regret, and each of us has left meetings or conversations and in hindsight realized we could have been much more effective. The reason we said those things, and the reason we weren’t more effective, is that we didn’t have as much control over the rules that shape our behavior as we would like to think. The rules are subtle, often buried in our emotions and bodies, where we are not so likely to take conscious note of them.
If the rules in your mind distort the perception of what someone says then your ability to respond effectively is diminished. If you interpret someone as hostile that will trigger a different response in you than if you interpret them as curious, and you will be certain that you are behaving reasonably under the circumstances – just as your brain is certain that the lines in the photograph of my hallway are not parallel. The only way around this is to develop awareness of the rules as they start to act, and to develop self-regulation that allows you to actually craft your own rules, and to consciously choose which rules you will follow. Your default rule when you feel attacked might be “If I start feeling defensive, talk rapidly and tell the other person why I am right and they are wrong.” An alternative rule that you can choose over your default rule might be: “If I start feeling defensive, slow down and deepen my breathing, and hold back my impulse to speak until I am ready to ask an honest question.” Either way you have rules that guide your behavior, but in the former case you are at the mercy of a rule you never chose, and in the latter case you are choosing the rule that you have designed and that serves you better.
Human beings have the remarkable ability to invent, and modify, many of the rules our minds use for interpreting our experiences. It is not always easy, but it is often possible. It is not easy because while it sounds like an intellectual exercise – which would be easy – the work actually has to be done on a deeper level, a level on which many of us are not conditioned to be comfortable operating. That deeper level is one that involves introspection not just into what you think, but also into how you feel, physically and emotionally. Because many of your rules live there, deep in your being, accessible only through introspection and self-awareness, not through logical analysis.
Our rules often get expressed as thoughts – as intellectual constructs – which can lead us to falsely believe that they are formed and live in our intellects. But the intellectual expression of a rule is just the tip of the iceberg, riding on top of the emotions and sensations that are constantly coursing through us. The tip of an iceberg goes wherever the mass hidden beneath the water goes. In the same way your thoughts go wherever your emotions and sensations take them. However, unlike an iceberg, which always keeps around 87% of it’s mass hidden, human beings can become more conscious of their pre-intellect emotions, sensations and beliefs that form their rules and shape their thoughts. You can therefore develop the ability to have more and more control, more and more choice, about the rules that guide your behavior
Our emotions, physical sensations, beliefs, desires, intentions – all the elements that collectively determine our state of mind – establish the rules that guide our behavior. And because all of these things are dynamic, the rules can be as well, though the various elements of our state of mind ultimately create balancing feedback loops.
Our individual behaviors establish feedback loops with others when we interact with them. These either reinforce or diminish our internal feedback loops. Collectively these give rise to the emergent behavior of the organization (family, workplace, neighborhood, etc.).
Our rules are the maps of our GPS systems – they tell us how we believe the world is laid out, where we are in it, and where we want to get to. And based on all of that, they lay out a path, which may be successful or disastrous. If you enter into a conversation from a position of defensiveness and hostility the likelihood of efficiently arriving at the outcome you want is vanishingly small; that map won’t work very well. If you enter from a place of authentic commitment to a value you care about, and from a place of compassion and curiosity towards the person or people you are working with, your chances are exponentially greater.
The way to thrive in your life and work is to cultivate the humility, awareness, courage and creativity to constantly see the rules you follow and the maps you hold in your mind; take accountability for the quality and effectiveness of those rules and maps; and constantly refine them to more closely align with the reality you experience – undistorted by your inner state, because you have become the master of that state.
This is where systems thinking and emergent behavior come in. Our behavior in response to one another creates feedback loops. Our behavior is the result of the rules we have about interpreting one another. So the rules lead to behavior, which establishes feedback loops. And those rules and feedback loops operating on a large scale – many people following the same rules, or influencing one another to converge on a set of rules, and thereby creating similar feedback loops – leads to the emergent behavior of the organization.