This week, Linda Ray, CEO of NeuroCapability, looks at mental schemas and how aligning mental schemas can support teams and businesses.
No two brains are alike. Clearly we are all different and if we think of it from a neurological point of view we are all wired differently. The way we think and behave is shaped by our experiences, our genetics and our behavioural preferences. The interesting thing is we all think that other people think like we think. It can be perplexing when we view a situation and come to a different conclusion than another person viewing the same situation. In our quest for certainty we will fight to be right because the brain is heavily geared to prediction and certainty. When someone offers a completely different take on something it can cause a threat response in us. This is particularly so if, after we have shared our view of the event, they still don’t see things the way we do. You can never completely understand an experience of another person. In other words saying things like “I know exactly how you feel” might demonstrate an intention to show empathy, however we can never know exactly how another person feels because we are all wired differently.
On the same page?
Given no two brains are alike, we also know we form different mental maps in the brain. In fact, we make mental maps for everything: people we see, things we do, thoughts we have. Amazingly, these mental maps involve from 10,000 to 50,000 neurons. Now, that is a lot of connecting! It also means that each of us can have a vastly different mental map for the same concept.
This is why it is virtually impossible to be ‘on the same page’ ̶ ̶ the classic cliché that we frequently utilise in the workplace ̶ ̶ when we wish to articulate, and have others articulate, mutual understanding. When our own mental map of the world is 100% unique, our ability to think exactly like another person and have exactly the same understanding as another person is impossible.
A schema is a mental map or concept which informs individuals about what to expect from a variety of situations and experiences. These schemas are developed based on information provided during our lifetime that are then stored in our memory. Our brains use these schemas as a short cut to make sense of the world and make future encounters with similar situations easier to navigate. Wadsworth (2004) suggests that schemata (the plural of schema) be thought of as ‘index cards’ filed in the brain, each one telling an individual how to react to incoming information or stimuli. The tricky thing is that these schema can cause us to exclude relevant information and to, instead, focus only on the things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. This is why we sometimes develop stereotypes that make it difficult to retain new information that doesn’t fit or conform to our established ideas about the world. Let’s look at an example. What comes into your mind when I say the word safety? A person’s view of safety is stored in their individual mental representations or schema. Schema can be event schema (e.g. memories of specific safety interactions with supervisors or co-workers) or concept schema (e.g. knowledge about safety procedures and practices). What do you think comes into the individual mental representations of the people in your work area when they are interpreting safety in the work environment? What do you think comes into the individual mental representations of senior managers when thinking about safety in the work environment?
Here is the interesting part. The research is clear, organizations and groups that have a shared schema experience fewer accidents and incidents (Clark 2006 cited in Colley and Neal 2012). However research suggests that people within organizations often do not share beliefs and mental representations about safety and climate perceptions differ across groups within an organisation. The same can be said for any concept in the workplace. As leaders part of our role is understanding what schema might be operating for ourselves in any situation and to ask questions that allow us to explore other schema rather than falling into the trap that everyone thinks like we think.
Types of schemas
Schemas can be classified into different types. Let’s explore common types of schemas.
Self – We have schemas about self that are our expectations about how we should act in different situations. If I believe that I am the joker at work always looking for a laugh, then I might feel obligated to modify my behaviour to fit this self-schema.
Person – We develop expectations about their behaviour based on their personality traits. So if a person is outgoing and the life of the party and they suddenly act the opposite of this, we can be surprised and confused by this unexpected behaviour.
Roles – Role schemas help us understand the social context we find ourselves in and adjust our behaviour accordingly to the demands of the situation. For example a police officer displays a professional role when carrying out their duties but likely behaves very differently when relaxing with friends and family. As observers of our social world, our expectations about how we should act differ depending on the social situation.
Event schemas are schemas for specific events which are often referred to as scripts. They are based on expectations of how to behave in different situations. We judge an event and how it should play out by recalling into our working memory previous experiences of similar events.
Concept schemas are the schemas that reflect the knowledge we have around a concept seen in the example around safety.
Schemas are very powerful and impact significantly on how we relate to others. They can perpetuate biases we may have about others or a situation. When an event happens that challenges our existing beliefs about a particular person, group or situation, in our quest for meeting the brain’s need for certainty, we will try to find alternative explanations that uphold and support our existing schema instead of adapting or changing our position or beliefs about a situation. Next time you are wondering if you are on the same page it might be time to explore the mental schemas people bring to a situation.