Get Outta My Head

Have you ever had someone perceive you to be a certain way as if they know what you’re thinking? I just received an invitation to a webinar that teaches managers to read people’s minds.  What a croc!  And, while it can’t be done it’s hard to believe that some people still fall for this stuff.  It is time that we get out of people’s heads and accept them as they are.  We are our behavior.  Let’s leave it at that.

If you find that you cannot trust what a person says, work with that.  Don’t try to figure them out.   What goes on in someone’s head is their business and doesn’t concern anyone else unless it is manifested in their behavior in some way. Not only can you look foolish when you stereotype someone as being a certain way, but it can be detrimental. I can give you many stories where people have caused real damage to the person whose mind they thought they could read.  I will give you one.

A mother had a son, let’s call him Jimmy, who would probably be placed on the end of the autism spectrum.   He was mute and very docile.  His mother took him most everywhere and had taught him basic self-help skills.  Although he was a teenager, his behavior was more of a two or three year old.

When a new county daycare facility opened in the neighborhood, the mother, needing a break, enrolled Jimmy.  It was quite a relief for her initially until it came time for a staffing evaluation with a consulting psychiatrist.  In discussing his case, the psychiatrist’s assessment was that because of Jimmy’s compliant behavior he must have pent-up feelings of anger toward his mother for infantilizing him all these years.  His recommendation was that the staff should help him express these feelings through exercises and activities.  One of the primary activities included a boxer’s punching bag.  As he was reinforced for punching the bag harder and harder he got pretty good at it, so good that he started punching not only the bag but other objects including the staff.  At this point they told the mother that they could not handle aggressive patients so she would have to find another place for him.  Of course at this time he was also punching her and other objects at home.  The solution was to place him in the vastly overcrowded state mental health hospital over 100 miles away.

Within two years, the state completed several regional facilities to relieve the pressure on the one facility. This is where I met Jimmy.  The regional concept was to transfer patients closer to home where there would be more opportunity for interaction with families, etc. When we received Jimmy he was combative and disheveled.  It took almost two years of working rather intensively with Jimmy to get him back to the state where he could return home with his mother; all because someone thought they could read Jimmy’s mind.

Even though this is a clinical example of the perils of trying to read someone’s mind, I hope you can see how this relates to the workplace. When you think you know what people are thinking based on non-verbals and you therefore make assumptions, you will only find that you are limiting this person’s potential.  It is a dangerous journey into someone’s mind, full of costly errors.  Don’t do it.  Learn the science of behavior and how to change it so that everyone benefits, all without getting inside someone else’s head.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.