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How to Address Organizational Culture via Cognitive Maps

December 03, 2014

We’re all pretty familiar with the concept that internal filters and expectations color what we see. The quote, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is just one example. But if you take it one large step further, what emerges is that what scientists call our cognitive map or framework for viewing the world, directly influences our view of the work environment and in fact is a particularly valuable way to understand work cultures or “Tribes”. It represents a powerful, and for the most part, untapped method of understanding and managing mergers, acquisitions and alliances. Interested, even a little bit? Stay with me and let me bounce some ideas off of you and make this a worthwhile read.

First a couple of qualifying definitions which will serve as aids in this quick review.

Cognitive Map. First introduced by Ed Tolman in 1948, cognitive maps can be thought of as a mental map we generate based upon our experiences of the world around us. Cognitive maps allow us to recognize and store patterns for easier mental processing (so we avoid “ground hog” days), but also function as an applied filter to what we perceive. That means the filter helps us to perceive more easily what we expect, and less easily what we don’t expect. That brings up the concept of accuracy.

Accurate View of the World. Just in case you thought you have an entirely accurate view of your world at work and home, it’s helpful to realize that what we perceive is to a large extent, what we expect to perceive. That’s right we perceive only a percentage of what’s out there, and that percentage is largely dependent on what we expect to perceive. Our cognitive maps are based on those expectations and help us to know where to look for stuff, but then again cause us not to recognize what doesn’t fit with our map. That’s why when my wife moves the jar of jam in the refrigerator from its “usual” place (in my mind), I have trouble relocating it, and it’s easier just to call out, “Hey, where’s the jam?” 😉

Here’s the insight. You might think of a mental map (e.g. your set of expectations and experiences) as your own personal HUDS display to help you navigate your way through life. And that would be very accurate. But here’s the thing, that same mental map can also be thought of as a set of smudgy eye glasses that let you see certain things quite clearly and other things poorly or not recognize them at all. Smudgy or not, our cognitive maps are like virtual glasses through which we see the world.

The interesting thing about viewing your mental map as eye glasses is that you need to take them off to clean them. In fact on some level you need to take them off to even realize they need cleaning. It’s the same with cognitive maps, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Think about applying the concept of cognitive maps to the challenge of understanding an organization that you were going to acquire or work with, or even better understand your own organization. Wouldn’t it be great if you could understand their mental map, their way of viewing the world? And, wouldn’t it be even better if you could not only understand their mental map, but also make changes where needed? Keep reading.

So here’s what I experience in working with organizations. Every company, every culture, has a perspective, an opinion, a set of expectations, and a preferred way of viewing the world on a number of key constructs. Let’s label that as their cultural cognitive map. It turns out that the cultural map is made up of definitions on a number of key constructs, such as “is this a place where people get treated fairly… or do you need to brown nose to get any recognition”. Not only are there key constructs, but there’s a positive or negative weighting on each construct or part of the map, based upon whether an individual believes others are following or violating what’s in the map. (People are basically treated fairly, but I have not been treated fairly). Negative weighing commonly make us reactive on the topic of any construct, and we lose flexibility, which interferes with our ability to update our maps or adjust to change.

Here’s an example of what the key constructs in a cultural cognitive map looks like.

Think about it for a moment.

Wouldn’t you like to know how other’s in your organization think about what “winning” takes or represents? Wouldn’t it be great if you knew how people define creating value, or who they think are the primary influencers or what their perception is of the Corp-Personal Ledger, e.g. “What do I owe the company versus what does it owe me back in return and who has withdrawn more than deposited?”

Sure you would, that’s tremendously valuable information, but it gets better. What if you did have access to that information? What if you knew how most people in your business group defined the “way things are done” or “what is good enough” when it came to creating value? And what if you needed to change the definitions in their map, because you likely do need some changes to occur? Or maybe you found out people are stuck with outdated expectations and perceptions… because they probably are. So now what do you do?

It turns out that it’s really hard to change someone else’s cognitive map. As John Kenneth Galbraith said in his famous quote, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to, most people get busy on the proof.“ Additionally, we tend to go about the change process by attempting to unwire existing patterns (which is backwards), instead of stretching them to help make new connections. You’ll find some excellent recommendations in David Rock’s book, Quiet Leadership.

Well the good news is that cognitive maps give you an inside, and what I like to think of as an un-paralleled, tool in the change process. Why? Because creating an external cognitive map helps people explicate what they are thinking internally. And once it is external, visible and tangible; others and you have a much easier time updating your maps, then when a map is functioning as a set of internal, private assumptions and expectations.

Here’s one more way to think of it. If you review the work Lewin produced on the change process, you come across his simple explanation of change as a process of:
1. Unfreezing (current patterns)
2. Change (Making the needed change by creating new behaviors, new insights and perceptions)
3. Refreezing (following up so that new behaviors become new patterns)

This is exactly the process you use in working with cognitive maps. And the key to making it easier to unfreeze existing cognitive maps is to draw it up externally, helping individuals and organizations not only see the map, but get more objective about its accuracy and/or needed changes.

I’m almost done, but before I close, imagine how powerful this is in working with other organizations. What would it be like to understand how the other group thinks and acts on these core constructs before you do an acquisitions, as you plan out the consolidation, or set up an alliance? Without having a view of the operating cognitive maps, you’re really working in the dark. And the resulting low percentage of successful mergers and acquisitions bears proof of just how difficult the task is without having this information at hand. I want to write something trite, like “never leave home without your cognitive map”, but you get what I’m after. This is a tremendous resource if you rely on getting work done through people, so make sure you take advantage of it.

Bottom Line:
Cognitive maps are fundamental to how we see the world, and what we see and also miss, based upon our expectations, assumptions and previous experiences. When explicated, using current mapping techniques, they become incredibly valuable resources in understanding (and changing) work cultures within and across organizations.

For more information or assistance in working with cognitive maps in your organization, contact Rodney Brim at rb@managepro.com or (707) 487-3000.

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