Want to Run a Successful Business? Hire Four-Year-Olds

In developmental psychology, there is a well-known experiment called the “false-belief test.” In this experiment, an audience of three and four-year-old children are asked to watch a play. In the play, a girl named Sally walks onto the stage pushing a stroller with a doll inside. She leaves the stroller (and doll) in the middle of the stage, and walks off. Unbeknownst to Sally, Anne walks onto the stage, takes the doll out of the stroller, and hides it under a couch. Sally then returns to the stage and the play is stopped. The children are then asked: “Where will Sally look for the doll?”

Results show that three-year-olds tend to fail the test by indicating that Sally will look under the couch. Psychologists argue that this is because three-year-olds cannot construct a separate mental model of the world that represents Sally’s experience―if they see the doll under the couch, so must everyone else.

For the four-years-olds, results change dramatically. They answer that Sally would look for the doll in the stroller. This experiment suggests that at around the age of four, a range of skills start to emerge that are vital for successful functioning in society. Four-year-olds begin to develop the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes; they are able to engage the world of others.

Psychologists call this ability to simulate or work out what others are thinking Theory of Mind or ”mentalization.”

What does that have to do with the corporate world? A lot!

Unfortunately, today, in many corporations, people behave like three-year-olds.

As a coach and consultant, I work with countless clients who are incapable of engaging the world of others. For some, it is a skill gap. For others, it is a lack of awareness. But for a large percentage of the population, it is simply a belief that there is no time or need to engage in the world of others. Examples can be found in multiple areas:

  • Employee Engagement – Managers pay attention to metrics and getting the work done (world of self/three-year old), often dictating to rather than connecting with their employees (world of other/four-year old);

  • Customer Satisfaction – Employees focus only on tasks to be completed—the checklist (world of self/three-year-old) and ignore the human being in front of them (world of other/four-year-old); and,

  • Sales or Business Development – Sales people approach prospects with a service or product to pitch (world of self/three-year-old), rather than with the objective of listening to develop a solution to fit client needs (world of other/four-year-old).

Today’s environment (or culture) is littered with examples of people focusing on themselves and their own agenda. We have lost the ability to engage the world of others. The impact is costly on so many fronts: retention, productivity, revenue, and most importantly, relationships. Left unattended, the eventual impact of three-year-old thinking is ultimately business failure.

The solution: hire or develop four-year-olds (tongue in cheek, of course).

To run a successful business, organizations have to enable, encourage and celebrate the skill of mentalization. Leaders and employees must meaningfully engage the world of others.

We recommend two tips to get you started:

  1. Suspend your own need – Temporarily put your ‘self’ and your own agenda aside to discover what the other person needs. This requires listening attentively and asking pertinent questions to deepen your understanding. This also means responding in relevancy to their perspective rather than your own.

  2. Shift your mindset from Transactional Management to Relationship Management – Move beyond the task/checklist and be mindful of who you are speaking with. The task (transaction) is important, but not at the expense of the relationship―the human or emotional connection. In fact, meaningful relationships require both.

Finally, we recommend sharing this message with your team. As part of our Circle & Square programs, we have found that simply offering this insight enables participants to adopt more effective internal and external relationship-building practices.

Taly Fleischer is the Director of Circle & Square, which has three service offerings: corporate training, consulting and leadership coaching. She leads coaching which utilises her own methodologies and leverages the proprietary Circle & Square methodology.

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