Psychology

Doing what you don’t know you’re doing?

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • You may be giving subtle cues that are opposite of what you believe.
  • Trying to be mindful in the moment can help spot certain actions driven by the unconscious.
  • Trying to understand tacit knowledge and attitudes can create opportunities for insight.

Riding home the other day on the Metro, there was a lady sitting in front of me reading some documents. At one of the stops a young African-American woman came in and sat right next to her. The moment she did, the other woman, who happened to be white, rearranged herself (which is not abnormal), but the first thing she did was zip up her purse.

I don’t think either of them paid any attention to what happened. There was no indication that either of them were doing anything that directly impacted the other person and there didn’t seem to be any eye contact. Probably no big deal to either of them.

But sitting behind them and looking at the situation it made me of think of how many actions we take unconsciously. While most of us are mentally and intellectually fully supportive of equality, I wonder what these kind of subtle cues add up to over a lifetime. Based on my reading of the situation, I would imagine you could easily get to a place where one group feels treated a certain way (and can't say exactly why) and the other group has absolutely no idea what the other group is talking about. The likelihood of solving problems when they get to this point is probably close to zero.

For organizations, I’m reminded of my graduate school class on organizational behavior where we covered two basic types of knowledge: 1) explicit knowledge that has been codified and understood, and 2) tacit knowledge which exists without anyone really knowing it exists. One example case I remember was of a bakery trying to figure out how to scale a recipe for a certain type of bread.

For organizations, I’m reminded of my graduate school class on organizational behavior where we covered two basic types of knowledge: 1) explicit knowledge that has been codified and understood, and 2) tacit knowledge which exists without anyone really knowing it exists. One example case I remember was of a bakery trying to figure out how to scale a recipe for a certain type of bread.

The baker had written everything down, but even when other bakers followed the recipe exactly the bread turned out different. In order to find out what was happening, they decided to film the baker. Sure enough, everything he did was written down on the piece of paper - except for one small thing. When flipping the dough, the baker gave it an extra knead and push - almost like an afterthought. This little addition meant slightly more air in the dough and a slightly different texture when baked. Recipe completed.

It’s not always possible to have someone film you, so that you can see all the little fidgets and adjustments that you make without your knowledge. It is possible, however, to take a step back away from yourself and look at your actions from a more distanced perspective that takes in the context of your surroundings. If after analyzing a particular action you don’t really know why you did it, or if you notice a divergence between your action and what you really believe, it’s a great opportunity reassess.

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