This is a topic I have been studying for a long time as this is the “social” tipping point if you will as it’s here around the age of 2 to 3 years children gain this ability. Outside of the obvious reasons why should we concern ourselves with this concept? Well, before going there let’s talk about what “Theory of Mind” is (ToM for short) to set the stage.
Most children prior to the age of say two to three years lack the concept that others also have thoughts and feelings too, thus during the time prior to this moment their world is an island made up of only themselves for that period. This is the reason when they play hide and seek, they feel if they cannot be seen, that they believe their playmates cannot see them either as they are incapable of understanding the perspective of others (i.e. the art of mind fullness). Now most “normal” children around 3 years of age will develop this ability and are then able to recognize others have thoughts and a “mindful” state too. However, notice the caveat of “normal” as not everyone will develop this ability as there are some cases as with Autism and its spectrum cousins such as Aspergers where this ability will be delayed, reduced or never form at all.
There has been a lot of work recently in this space to understand this attribute as this is a key aspect which sets us apart in the animal kingdom. One of the recent discoveries is the existence of “mirror” cells (neurons in technical speak) in the brain. Mirror cells you ask, how do these work? One example is have you ever watched a person eat a tart apple and taste the same in your mouth without actually eating one? This is for the guys out there as how many times have you seen another guy take a direct hit to the family jewels an wince well grabbing toward your own junk as a reflex? Well my friends these are mirror cells in action allowing you to feel what others “feel” even while not first hand.
What does all this have to do with business, life and our new viral world, the answer is as a leader having a working understanding of ToM is a critical aspect to forming productive teams and organizations. As too much or too little and the cake won’t rise to use a baking metaphor. Because as with everything human, we will find varying degrees of adaptation across any cross-section of people we look at as we all possess varying levels of empathy and social understanding.
So the first key is to understand that ToM exists and it’s a developed trait and being a “developed” trait, people will possess various levels of capabilities in this space. Now as with all personality typing systems like Myers-Briggs and DiSC, its important to understand that a trait doesn’t define a person, it simply supports their abilities and diversity is good as in our Darwinist world, this variety means success for our species which is a positive thing.
Thus for the real world, one of the methods I use is a scale which I’ve created called the ToM Index where a simple 1 to 5 scale is used as an alignment mechanism where 1’s are low on the mindfulness scale where as 5’s are high and with every 1 to 5 scale the majority of the people fall to the average distribution of a three.
The next question is how to tell where a person sits on the scale and that is the stuff of many books. However the first coaching point is know first where you sit! Yes yourself as once you know this, you now have a reference point to assess the position of others and while I am a huge Myers-Briggs fan, I have found Disc to be a much better tool (using the “D” number as an assessment means) to establish my baseline as the “directness” has served me well to boost my success in assessing situations and designing competitive teams.
Once you have the interworkings of this down, the next basic concept is understanding your existing team, as they all one or even distributed? In personally doing this in a company after a lot of downsizing what turned up was we were left with a basically a team of 1’s! as you can guess, this left very little empathy in the room and was a difficult situation to manage as we did not have any peace makers if you will to balance out the mix. So as you can see here is one clear value to understanding group dynamics for business improvement. Again, there are books upon books on this and related subjects which I highly recommend as human capital is the only kind of capital so its best to learn how to invest it wisely…