Culture and Conceptual Blindness

Gustavo Grodnitzky Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

Last week, I had a really interesting conversation with the CEO and CFO of a mid-sized company. They had requested a teleconference because they wanted to discuss the possibility of me helping them improve the performance of their “business partners.” The problem? They had recently experienced a decline in availability of their most seasoned business partners, all of whom were independent contractors … and many of whom, based on their own report, had become disengaged from their organization.

In the first two minutes of our conversation, part of the problem become immediately clear. They were speaking about their independent contractors as “business partners” – but treating them as vendors. What’s the difference? Business partners enter into a business relationship or alliance that is mutually agreeable and beneficial. A true business partner is genuinely interested and invested in the well-being and profit of both their own organization AND the business with whom s/he is partnered. By contrast, a vendor is someone who is simply selling a product or service. There is little to no genuine concern beyond the immediate transaction, with the exception of the possibility of future transactions of the same or a similar kind.

The two executives I spoke with had taken relationships that had historically been with genuine business partners – and turned them into contractor relationships. How? They began to pass on to their business partners expenses that were previously not part of the contract. They were clearly interested only in maximizing their own profit, and they were passing on their own costs to their business partners, thereby reducing the profit for their business partners. But they wouldn’t admit their own motivation. When asked what prompted the changes, they stated, “Independent contractors always try to take advantage of larger companies like ours.” Actually, they don’t. I went on to share several stories of how I – and many colleagues that I have worked with – have gone out of our way to be a responsible corporate citizen, watching and reducing expenses for our clients even when a higher expense could be justified. In other words, I offered several examples of how speakers and consultants treated their clients’ money as their own. However, they couldn’t see it. They had conceptual blindness to the idea.

Our perceptions are limited by our conceptions. We can only see what we can imagine, consider, and understand. They could not entertain the concept that independent contractors could actually care as much about their financial resources as they did. Because they couldn’t conceive it, they could never perceive it, even in the face of several examples and anecdotes offered as evidence. That is conceptual blindness.

So, how could you know if you are in a situation where you are displaying conceptual blindness? You are likely in a state of conceptual blindness if someone is trying to explain something to you – often with great passion, information and/or data – and in your mind you are either tuning them out, diminishing the information or its source (including them), and/or simply ignoring any information that is contrary to what you already “know.”

If you find yourself in this state, what can you do?

1. Stop, take a deep breath, and suspend disbelief. This may be the most difficult step. Humans like to be right and let others know that they are right. The person across from you also thinks they are right. Ask yourself, what do they see that I do not see?
2. Bring a beginner’s mind to the situation. Beginners are always willing to learn. They bring a fresh and open mind to a learning situation because they have limited experience. Create a space in your mind where you can listen and learn anew.
3. Put on new glasses, figuratively speaking – preferably those of the other person. The other person is perceiving the world with a different pair of lenses than yours. Their lenses are created by their conception of the world. Put on their lenses and see what they see. Even if it is only for a short time, you will have expanded your mind and your world.

Unfortunately, the two executives I spoke with last week could do none of these things. It was their own conceptual blindness that turned their independent contractors from true business partners into newly disengaged vendors. It was their system of beliefs that very quickly began to permeate through their culture and led to the self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the relationship between their organization and their independent contractors. A vendor may try to take advantage of a buyer, but a true business partner will not. They could not see it, and unless they change their conception of business relationships, they will never be able to change their perception.