OPD Articles / Why we do what we do


Why we do what we do

Dr Graham Little PhD AFNZIM MInstD MNZIC

What do you understand about how we, humans, work as a species? And how should or does the understanding of how we work as a species relate to what we need to do as managers and leaders? These are the questions I will consider over the next few articles and to establish clearly and very precisely the psychological targets for managers/leaders, and they are not what you might expect or think. But let's not jump the gun. I do not want to bore you with a lot of philosophy, but some is in fact essential to illustrate that what you are being offered is sound and constructed on solid ground.

First, what is a theory, or model, and why is it important? Some very elegant social science research was done thirty years ago by two fellows called Anderson and Prichert . They took fifty people and put them into a house saying you look at this house with a view to buying it. They then took another fifty people and put them into the same house and told them to look at the house with a view to burgling it. They then sat each group in a different room and asked them to write down everything they could recall about the house. The two sets of lists did not overlap, what people saw from point of view of buying was totally different from point of view of burgling.

So what does this tell us? First that we 'see' according to our orientation, not just what is there; so what you say, I knew that. Let's make the process of seeing clearer. In my general theory of psychology 1 I concluded that the 'world view' of a person was causal in their mood and conduct, further more, that it came in unique and quite precise units, technically they were sets of conscious thought, emotion and attitude linked to situations in what I called 'mental sets'. We can simplify the cognitive parts of mental sets into what I call 'transparencies', or 'frames'2. The way we can picture the world view is to image a box of transparencies in the front of your mind, then every situation you 'look' at is seen via one of these transparencies. Where did these transparencies come from? A separate discussion, but essentially society/culture, education, and personal reflective thought.

Buy and burgle are transparencies, they exactly illustrate how transparencies work, how they influence us and orientate us to every situation. Now, this is critical, we do not have a choice… this is an essential aspect of how we work. In addition, we have feelings attached to our transparencies. So between our transparencies and emotions attached to them - partly our attitude to the situation and to our view of the situation, so our mood and conduct toward and in regard the situation is constructed. This is the theory of how we work, and how our response is constructed within us.

What is on any transparencies is our model or theory of the situation to which the transparencies relate. It is as well to pause and consider this, it is very, very important. We all use theories all the time; they are the content of our transparencies, what is on the transparency. The existence of the transparency is part of my 'model' or 'theory' of psychology. What is on the transparencies is you, your world view, your personality and your attitude and your views of any situation. The fact you have transparencies and the content shapes how you 'see' situations (buy and burgle) is beyond dispute. What you need do is to become much, much more aware of the models you use and your view of things. You can change it…and this is especially important in management and leadership.

We have established that you 'see' via transparencies. These carry your theory or model of any situation. And you can do nothing to circumvent this process; it is how we work as a species. A scientific theory is exactly the same as your personal transparencies; it is merely constructed according to more rigorous rules. The scientists then 'see' certain situations according to the theory in exactly the same way you see a house depending on you buying or burgling it. We can now say everyone uses theories every day…and for them to be more effective the theories need reviewed and assessed and tested exactly as science reviews and tests theories (perhaps we do not need full scientific rigor, but if we are to improve our management and leadership we do need greater rigor than likely we have given our model to date).

The first test might be did you previously understand transparencies and how they shaped what people do? Emotions are hard to shift, and I am not sure you have the right as managers to tell people how they should feel. This means the priority and immediate target for all managers is to ensure the people in your team have more effective transparencies about their role in the business.

Are team members really clear on what is expected of them?

Are team members really clear on how to do it?

Are team leaders really clear on how to build better transparencies in team members?

And do you have effective HR systems and processes that support and focus team leaders on achieving what are now very clear psychological targets?

And if you did build better transparencies in mind of every staff member, what would that do to your bottom line?


1. See my web site www.grlphilosophy.co.nz. Papers on Causes of Depression and Causes of Violence best illustrate the theory.
2. Transparencies relate to overhead transparencies, and frames to web screens or power point, so use the term you most comfortable with. They are exactly equivalent, and refer to the conceptual orientation of a person. I will transparencies, since due age it is how I think of them! But 'frames' is equally acceptable, and refers to the exact same thing.