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!