The Loop

Communication Impediments: Are You a 'Cognitive Miser'?

Filed under: Communication

Conflicts in the work environment are inevitable, but they are not always caused by an external situation. More often they are caused by people: their perceptions, agendas, and stereotypes. Many companies make the appearance of encouraging a team environment, but then pay out individual performance bonuses – which actually creates competition among team members.

Often, conflicts are blamed on differences in personalities. For example, data-driven analysts are frustrated by creative types, and vice versa. Department heads engage in subterfuge and power moves in an unspoken battle for resources and headcount. It can be war out there, so how can you control communication and chaos before it gets out of hand?

Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the phrase "cognitive misers" to describe how people use a mental shorthand to stereotype others based on preconceived notions so they don't have to consider other factors that may influence what a person says or does. The problem with this shorthand is that a person's disposition hardly matters in most conflict situations– what he thinks and does should be a reflection of his knowledge and experience. According to the "cognitive miser" theory, it is easier for people to think a colleague is just trying to be difficult or is habitually not a team player than to consider he may have valid objections. Not recognizing and listening to opposing points of view can make for closed-minded business decisions.

When team members, or departments, experience a conflict, it is important to identify the issues and not get bogged down in the way a person communicates – even if it comes off as abrasive. What's important is to really hear what that person says and not dismiss him because he's too brusque or too verbose. One constructive way to get different teams working together is to task them with this approach: "We have assembled this team because each of you represents a different perspective regarding this project. We need you to voice your opinion so that all aspects of this issue can be examined and discussed, even when that means some people will have opposing points of view. Once you share your knowledge and insights, work together on the problem to address potential issues both now and in the future before you arrive at a solution. That way we'll know that if all of you can agree on a recommended solution, it will be thoroughly vetted as the best course of action."

Setting up a work team with this dictum acknowledges that conflicts are expected, so it does no good for everyone in the room to agree immediately on a course of action. In other words, "yes men" are useless; the best ideas evolve from open and direct conflict resolution. If you don't have people in the room with the experience necessary to voice potential issues and conflicts regarding the issue, then the team isn't able to properly vet potential solutions.

Judith E. Glaser, author and CEO of Benchmark Communications, offers the following three strategies to help colleagues address work issues without resorting to personality conflicts:

1. Clarify the conflict by talking through each party's stance. For example, "You seem to be suggesting that we should focus on increasing revenues before investing in a new IT strategy. Is that correct?"
2. Take a break and discuss the problem with a neutral friend or colleague to get an objective perspective – not with the intent of swaying a follower to your side. This social interaction will also put you in a more collaborative state of mind.
3. Use the conflict as a springboard to find common ground in order to advance a solution. For example, say "Let's leave this aside for the moment and think about another way to approach the issue."

In many ways, we have moved away from stereotyping people by gender or race and replaced it with even more personal attacks. Now a colleague isn't accused of being irrational because she is a woman, but because her voice reaches a high pitch when she speaks passionately. Perhaps it's time to recognize that her passion stems from her experience and insights into the work situation, and not judge her by the way she communicates.

While it's important that all employees learn to communicate calmly and not resort to aggravated tones or inappropriate language, it's also important not to expect everyone to communicate in the exact same manner. Doing so can seriously douse individual thoughts and ideas because employees become too focused on fitting the perfect mold.

An organization that hires, trains, and encourages its employees to behave and communicate in much the same way may lack the variety, passion, and diversity that can drive innovation. Oftentimes, it's the "outliers" who provide valuable input to facilitate better business decisions.

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