The calls for collaboration these days seem to intensify continually and most of us assume that to succeed we must build better emotional and social bonds with our colleagues. So it might come as a surprise that two consultants, who have just written a book titled Collaborative Intelligence, focus instead on the mind – thinking along with people who think differently from you.
"Collaborative intelligence is the ability to think with other people in such a way that you evoke the best in them," Dawna Markova said in an interview. She's based in Hawaii, collaborating with daughter-in-law and co-author Angie McArthur, who lives in Utah but grew up in Canada and went to McGill University in Montreal.
Ms. Markova recalls working with one company where the CEO had a team of 12 people, 10 of whom were very much like him. They perceived information in the same way, and stood up and talked loudly when making their points. The two remaining team members, who would quietly ask questions and process the information they received, were considered weak (the man) and fluffy (the woman) by the CEO.
"The leadership team was a disaster. Imagine a room filled with Donald Trumps. They had no ability to collaborate. They knew how to fight, flight or freeze. They figured that was natural if you were strong," she recalled.
A barrier for us is that we don't notice our thinking, only our thoughts. That leads us to make assumptions, often negative, about other people who think differently than we do. He's bored. She dawdles. He can't get to the point. She's indecisive. But it may simply be a different thinking style, one we could profit from collaborating with. "Many of the barriers keeping us apart are actually optional, present only in our minds," they write in the book.
We need to recognize how our own mind works, and by extension what is happening to those around us as they think. It starts with the three types of attention: focused, sorting and open.
In focused attention, a conscious state of mind, your brain is producing more beta waves. Your thoughts become certain and form more solid beliefs. This might happen as you are concentrating on a computer screen or the direction the hammer in your hand needs to take. It's best suited for concentrating on tasks, decision-making and attending to details and time lines.
Sorting attention is subconscious, the brain producing more alpha waves. Your thoughts wander back and forth, sorting through information, comparing things. You are digesting information, trying to understand, or weighing multiple options.
Open attention is also an unconscious state of mind, in which your brain is producing more theta waves. It's as if in a daydream, thoughts wide but internal. You are imagining possibilities, exploring different options and associating with past experiences and people.
Our minds continually shift among these three forms of attention. But when others do the same, we don't necessarily value the state they are in. We might ask something and they don't respond directly because they are sorting or imagining. Most of us have been taught that only the focused state of attention matters – the others are wasteful.
The two consultants layer onto the states of attention three kinds of perception: auditory, kinesthetic and visual. Auditory thinking is listening, telling and discussing. Kinesthetic thinking is doing, moving, feeling and making things. Visual thinking is looking, watching, reading, writing and showing.
We all use them in our thinking, but each can stimulate us differently. For one person, visual information might trigger focused thinking, as she sees details in her "mind's eye" and absorbs complex visual information in a sequential way. But a second person might react quite differently, the same visual information triggering an open state of attention. And again, that could work against collaboration if they don't understand what is happening – if colleagues fight the differences instead of taking advantage of them.
"It sounds complex. But it happens in a millisecond," she said.
The consultants distinguish six different mind patterns, depending on how our states of attention and ways of perception intermingle, and help to demystify their system by highlighting the approach of various famous people. Oprah Winfrey, for example, starts with the visual for focused thinking, then auditory information triggers her sorting and a kinesthetic state of mind induces her imagination. She makes extended, direct eye contact with her guests and sits very still through interviews. Her face expresses whatever she's feeling. U.S. President Barack Obama has the same style.
Soccer star Mia Hamm focuses her mind while on the move, she sorts information visually and demonstrates an open state of mind when listening. "On the field, she would lead by example rather than vocally. Her physical presence is solid and steady. In interviews, she ponders the questions before answering; her replies are usually slow, thoughtful, and very deep and sincere," they write in a handout.
It can seem confusing initially. But they say as people catch on, it unlocks their collaborative intelligence. "We want to do things in a way that makes sense for ourselves. But we need to know how others are different," Ms. McArthur concludes.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter