Different Ways of Thinking Within a Company

Set aside perceived threats and defense mechanisms to build productive relationships with those who think differently.


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As a person who has dealt with many different companies during my career, I have experienced my share of “head scratching” moments when you realize just how differently some people think.  Obviously, a person’s way of thinking is impacted by many things, such as companies for which they have worked, organizations with which they have been involved, people whom they have met and situations they have encountered during their careers. It can be frustrating to deal with those who think differently, especially when they employ any of the following approaches to their thinking: 

• Purposeful evasiveness. This way of thinking is characterized by vague or confusing responses to questions. A favorite response to any question is: “It depends.” Of course everything depends on something, but when we are seeking information, an “It depends” response is not helpful. In addition, people practicing this type of thinking might provide partial information without important facts because they were never asked about those particular facts. Sometimes in practicing purposeful evasiveness, someone will provide an answer that has nothing to do with the question. I once asked someone where parts went after they left that department and received the response: “I have to hold a close tolerance on these three holes.” (Maybe it was the way I asked the question?)

Cannot let go of the past. No matter what advances are made to improve our lives, there are always some who prefer to live in the past. One company, whose sales had been pretty flat for a number of years, was trying to improve the way it was doing things. Most of the management team were open to new ideas, but one manager could not accept any approach other than the way things were done 10 years ago, when the company employed more people. Unfortunately, due to current and projected business volume, the company could not afford to increase the size of its workforce to match the head count from “those good old days.”

We are different from other companies. Some get so caught up in this way of thinking that they cannot accept, or even try, ideas that have been proven successful elsewhere. Differences always take precedence over similarities. Even simple techniques such as a well-organized workplace or the use of visual signals to help convey understanding in the plant have no place in these “different” companies. These people need to take a step back and realize they are not so different from everyone else. 

You don’t understand our business. This is actually a corollary to the “We are different from other companies” way of thinking and many adopt both approaches. People who think this way believe that you have to have a thorough understanding of every aspect of their business to identify opportunities for improvement. Although it certainly is helpful to have a basic understanding of what a company does and how it does it, knowing every aspect of the operation may shift focus away from the big picture (and big opportunities). Getting mired in details can inhibit the ability to explore alternative approaches and will likely lead to a continuation of the status quo, which is probably the comfort zone for those who think this way.

Failure is the only option. This approach is a favorite of those who are generally pessimistic in nature. Commonly used phrases include: “That won’t work here,” or “We tried that once and it did not work.” People who think this way have a strong attachment to current practices and believe that any deviation from these practices will lead to failure.

Sometimes they make use of self-fulfilling prophecies, such as: “I don’t think it will work, but we can try it for a couple of days just to see [it fail].” They frequently highlight prior initiatives that did not go as planned to support their positions. I once had somebody tell me that a minor change made in the manufacturing process almost put the company out of business. Perhaps this man’s way of thinking led him to that conclusion; however, the fact is that minor change had a very positive impact on the company overall.

When you look at each of these ways of thinking, it is easy to see that they are all defense mechanisms. Those employing these approaches are really trying to protect themselves from the unknown. With that in mind, those of us who recognize the need for continuous improvement must find ways to reduce the perceived threat to those who do not. Once the perceived threats are set aside, we might find supportive partners in those who do think differently.