How's the water?


If you were to ask a fish what water is like, it would look at you like you were crazy. If you are talking to fish, you probably are crazy, but that’s a separate issue. The point is that the medium in which the fish exists is so pervasive as to be undetectable. If I asked you where you work, you might tell me the name of your company, department, or building. But if I said, yeah but what’s in it? You’d look at me as quizzically as the fish. Because like the fish, your fishbowl is filled with something invisible to you. Your environment is saturated with invisible psychological forces which, like water, influence how you move through it.

I’m not talking about culture, exactly, although it’s similar. While culture refers to the set of attitudes and behavior representative of the social group of an organization, there is another set of psychological forces that operates at the job level. They are a function of what we do, not where we do it or who we do it with. So while your company may have a certain feel to it, you’ve probably also noticed that the people in IT share a set of characteristics and ways of looking at things that are different from the folks in HR or accounting. The modes of thinking and attitudes of a thoracic surgeon are going to be different from those of a neonatologist, even though they’re both doctors working in the same hospital.

But what are these psychological forces exactly? They’re the assortment of attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives we bring to bear when approaching tasks and solving problems. They influence how we view things and what strategies we employ to deal with them. While people naturally differ on these characteristics, the situations and tasks we face through our work will also elicit some qualities more than others. This piece presents a more thorough discussion of some examples and what they might look like in different fishbowls, but here’s a few to consider:

  • tendency to take a long- versus short-term view (science fiction writer vs. weatherman)
  • tendency to focus on effects in immediate or broader environment (plumber vs. economist)
  • preference for considering practical, pragmatic ideas versus creative, speculative ideas (banker vs. graphic artist)
  • impulse toward independence versus collaboration (solo pianist vs. symphony conductor)
  • positivity/optimism versus pessimism/cynicism (kindergarten teacher vs. divorce attorney)
  • beliefs about the inherent goodness of others (hospital chaplain vs. DEA officer)
  • orientation toward growth versus the status quo (business development executive vs. library archivist)

To appreciate how the nature of the work we do conspires to both strengthen and narrow our habits of mind, consider how things might go if you tasked a trial lawyer and a yoga instructor with providing premarital counseling; or a plumber and a museum curator with planning a five year old’s birthday party. They would approach the work with a different set of go-to approaches. It makes sense, of course, but it can cause problems if those approaches are the only ones we use, no matter what issue we are facing. When we fail to appreciate our mental grooves, they get stronger and deeper and we lose breadth. Played out in organizations, it’s these invisible forces that lead us to hire people just like us, succumb to groupthink, and stifle innovation. This is also the reason why people who rise through the ranks suddenly peter out. Managers used to putting out fires and directing others struggle when called upon to engage in long-term planning and collaboration.

Luckily there’s an antidote. To prevent our mental grooves from getting too deep, we just need to develop other potential pathways. Reading broadly and seeking out diverse experiences force us to consider new angles and different ways of thinking. Maybe this means making sure you take the time off from work you’ve been stockpiling and going on a real vacation somewhere off the beaten path. Or maybe instead of picking up the same old industry mag at the airport you read a book of poetry. Maybe you look for ways to rub elbows with people very different from yourself, such as through volunteer work. What you do matters less than whether or not you are flexing the same muscle or demanding something new from yourself. Don’t be that guy at the gym who always skips leg day. If you don’t want to risk becoming a caricature of yourself and sacrificing success, you need to stretch your capabilities all over.

“To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail.”