Lose Your Mind - Impact Associates

Lose Your Mind
(and Come to Your Senses)
Coping With Supersized Caseloads
and Information Overload
By Vergil Metts, PHD
recently had a feel your pain moment, tuning into a Case In Point Webinar
and learning about the stunning growth in your field’s caseloads. From my
outsider’s perch, it appears ever-tightening industry economics and the information revolution have conspired to make your vital and challenging work,
well, even more vital and challenging. As data rushes ever faster, so rises the bar
on productivity expectations. That relationship may work for widget makers, but
for people in the people business, it’s a huge problem.
When the line can’t run any faster, yet still more is demanded, how do you
maintain quality? It’s enough to make you lose your mind. So how does a talented, conscientious professional like you keep delivering the service and outcomes
you want for your clients and expect of yourself?
I suggest you go right ahead and lose your mind.
Stay with me for a moment and I’ll explain the practical implications of what I
mean. All the information flying at us, the demands of our managers, our clients
and our personal lives—by sheer necessity—forces us to operate in a kind of
autopilot mode. In psychology’s parlance, we employ cognitive schema.
According to Kendra Van Wagner, cognitive schema is “a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas
can be useful, because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast
amount of information. “
We all use cognitive schema, which evolve over time as the product of what we
are told, experience and come to believe. Think of yours as a big sorting tool,
automatically guiding reams of data rushing in at the top into tight compartments down below, making information more efficient to process and act on.
It’s your mind at work, helping you deal with sheer volume, quite often to good
effect. Run it through the system, cross it off the list, move on to the next item.
10 Case In Point • www.dorlandhealth.com • February/March 2010
But what happens when something
we experience doesn’t fit into one of
those little boxes? Two things, broadly
speaking. If incoming information is
hugely at odds with our schema—
so new or conflicting with what we
know, it just doesn’t add up—we shift
from automatic to controlled processing. In this mode, we examine incoming information more closely, compare
it to what we expect, and may even
modify our schema based on what we
It’s a good thing, and it happens on
scales grand and small. There are
events like Magic Johnson’s announcing some 20 years back his HIV
positive status, forcing many to reexamine what they knew or thought
about AIDS. In our everyday lives,
there is the formerly faceless 20-something hatching a brilliant idea in a
meeting, who will now be called into
many more. These “stop and look”
moments’ net effects come courtesy
of controlled processing.
The problem comes when something
that may merit closer inspection isn’t
sufficiently at odds with our current
schema. That stuff goes into the trash,
where it can’t gum up automatic processing’s finely tuned machinery. The
problem is, some of that information
merits attention. Also, there is simply
a limit to our mental holding capacity. By rule, the more that goes in the
top (i.e., what the information era has
wrought), the more that gets tossed.
Demolishing Perceptions
Cognitive schemas can have a very
real effect on what we see, don’t see,
or think we see. In a series of studies
focused on perceptions of leadership
behavior, psychologist Robert Lord
and colleagues showed that when
observers believed a team leader to
be associated with a high performing
group, raters “saw” significantly different behavior during videotaped team
sessions than when observers believed the group to be
poor performers. Thing is, the two groups of raters were
watching the same videotape.
Locked in automatic processing mode—being overly
mindful, if you will—we may miss not only empirical
data but also critical “below the line” cues like facial
expressions and tone of voice, essential in fully reading
and understanding people and situations. It is indeed
about not just what they say, but how they say it.
So at times, it’s a really good idea to lose your mind—to
self-consciously disable that built-in sorting device and
manually shift into controlled-processing mode. Losing
your mind literally means coming to your senses, more
purely experiencing how something is being said, and
how the person saying it feels. It’s the opposite of taking
a step back, which is about gaining distance for better
analysis. I’m advocating taking a step forward, closer to
your subject, to get ahold of more raw data.
OK, interesting idea. But how? By being more present
in the moment. In a nutshell, better presence in a given
moment requires checking your opinions at the door,
entering a discussion prepared to judge neither the
other party nor what they say. It is a very self-conscious,
active and pure type of “good listening.”
Switching from automatic processing mode into controlled
mode, you’ll gain access to invaluable information that
may better convey a client’s true concerns, misconceptions
and simple facts. It may help you chart a more pragmatic
course, perhaps even saving some time when all is said and
done by accelerating the “getting to know” process.
Looking and listening for differentiating cues and data, a
case may reveal itself to not fit any one particular type. The
resulting net benefits on decision making for the patient,
their families, third parties and the system overall—and
your sense of effectiveness and satisfaction—needn’t be
recited, but may be profound. cip
Dr. Vergil Metts, president and CEO of Impact Associates,
holds a doctorate degree in industrial and organizational
psychology from the University of Tennessee. Dr. Metts has
extensive experience working for and consulting with
public and private organizations.
([email protected])
This can take some time and effort, especially for newcomers. Over time, with enough practice, it can become
part of your everyday routine. To start, I suggest setting
two internal alarms. When either goes off, switch your
mode button from automatic to controlled:
Alarm One. Set to go off on days when it all seems
too much to handle—too much e-mail and data, too
many cases, new or old. When we feel overwhelmed by
work, we tend to work as fast and furiously as we can
to handle the barrage of commitments coming at us.
But you might be better served to slow down instead of
speeding up. Recognize that your ability to engage in
active, conscious thought (i.e., controlled processing) is
a limited resource. Tackle the big stuff first and leave the
simple stuff for later. When you feel most overwhelmed,
it is perhaps the most important time to be conscious
about your thought process.
Alarm Two. Goes off when a situation feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Here, your cognitive schema can
shift into overdrive, discarding reams of data that don’t
neatly fit into a box—the polar opposite of what you
need to operate effectively under such circumstances.
If something feels different, feel it more, and you’ll get
more in return.
February/March 2010 • www.dorlandhealth.com • Case In Point 11