Is Your Colleague a Jerk or Just Different?

BlogHer Original Post

Let's face it, we've all worked with one. Someone who drives us so insane because they don't think like we do. It's like Felix & Unger of the Odd Couple do The Office.  Makes you want to scream Jerk!! on the top of your lungs.  Yet, is that person really being a jerk or do they just fall somewhere else on the cognitive continuum than you do?

In November I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Carol Mase speak about the organization as an organism. As part of this presentation which was seriously cerebral (but thankfully also highly practical in its application) she presented to us what she called a cognitive continuum which is all about situational thinking. It represents the different types of ways people think and process information most naturally. Unlike other charts, this isn't about one way of thinking being better than another.  We're not talking evolution here, but instead a model for understanding how individuals think and act together.  Clearly applicable to all different types of business environments, right? 

Her presentation was data intensive, but I walked away with 5 different types of thinkers:

  • Sequential - cause & effect, fix & solve problems, facts are "out there"
  • Hierarchical - rational, highly ordered thinking, expertise rules and decides
  • Episodic - coordination in real-time, adaptive & creative like a jazz ensemble
  • Network - social & emotional impact is the focus, self-organizing, builds consensus
  • Web - co-creative, improvisational, loves change

While I could never do justice to this material, what it did give me is the inspiration to step back and just notice how different people in groups interact.  This difference in thinking and work-style forms the basis for every stereotypical office and business joke out there.  The popular Dilbert conflict between IT and marketing is rooted in it.

This article on the two types of thinking that we need to think about is interesting because it breaks everything down into either critical thinking or possibility thinking. The vital difference being:

The vital difference between the two modes are that critical thinking asks, 'is this true?', while creative possibility thinking asks, 'is this useful?'. Creative thinking is interested in possibilities, it looks for meaning and personal significance. It likes to tie facts together and give them context (that is what we call 'story'). It dreams and imagines what could be rather than looking at what's actually there.

Take this out of the realm of philosophy and into your daily life. We all have our natural mode of operation (let's say more critical or situational/hierarchical) and then encounter a business colleague who is a community-building or web thinking.  They are all big-picture and relational and you're trying to get things done according to the facts.  See where the conflict arises?  They secret is, when you have a group/organization you need to find the right combination of people so that all ends of the spectrum are served without bogging down results by never moving forward. 

The way you work and think permeates all you do - the work you choose, the people you work with, even the personal spaces and relationships you create.  I found this excellent take on why you need to consider how your brain works in "Organizing Your Space":

Again, the first thing to think about is how you work. I know you must get tired of hearing me say this, but until you know how your brain works and how YOU work, you can’t design a space or a schedule or a life or anything. So many people sleepwalk through their lives, never really feeling comfortable or at home but not knowing why. They set up their living spaces the way they see other people’s set up, and they eat meals at Regular Meal Times, and they wear the clothes they buy at the mall. They feel out of sorts, kind of alien, a little itchy and grouchy and like they’re wearing a life that’s a couple sizes too small for them, but they don’t know why.

It’s because they’ve never stopped to figure out how their brain works, how they think, how they need to arrange their lives for the way THEY function.

So the sum total of this article is that it is worth taking a moment to notice how you think and how those around you think.  Where are the conflicts?  the similarities? the synergies? What types of thinking is missing to make you/your business/your organization function optimally? And remember...

... the next time a colleague drives you nuts, remember that it might not be necessarily wrong; they are just thinking differently.


Paula Gregorowicz, owner of The Paula G. Company, offers life and business coaching for women to help you gain the clarity, confidence, and courage you need to take your business and life to that next level. Get the free eCourse "5 Steps to Move from Fear to Freedom & Experience Greater Confidence" at her website

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