One of the Top Challenges in the Workplace: Closed-Mindedness

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – Albert Einstein

Our Default is Closed-Mindedness

Knowledge isn’t powerful on its own – Nor is applying knowledge powerful on its own – Only understood knowledge when applied is powerful.

Whether we like it or not and whether we admit it or not, our minds default mode is to judge and be closed. For efficiency (or laziness depending on one’s perspective), our minds constantly scan the world, judging issues, people, situations and ideas in terms of a spectrum such as life or death, like or dislike, good or bad, friend or foe, success or failure. These judgments, and in many cases prejudgments, that contribute to closed-mindedness, altogether impact the depth of our understanding. Experts have developed theories and done all kinds of research and studies on the mind, which can help us grasp why judgment and closed-mindedness can easily get in the way of true understanding.

Three Reasons Why We All Might Understand Less Than We Think

  1. Bounded Rationality: People are limited by their mind’s ability to process, interpret, and act on information, which is called ‘bounded rationality.’ We can all have difficulty in identifying and considering every possible alternative available, based on the thresholds of time, the way our brains work, and the information that we have. Put another way, our rationale about anything can only be as rational, as we’re open to developing our rationale. (Did you get that?) For example, if we don’t particularly like a colleague, this decision about not liking them, is bounded by the current information that we have about them. Of course, there can be more to the colleague than the information that we have, that is not actually part of our decision-making process. In every area of our lives, there is so much input from the world that’s untapped by our minds. Thus, closed-mindedness can come from the belief that I ‘know enough,’ and I’ll be bounded by how much I know – where my knowledge falls on a range of low to high in any particular area.
  2. Cognitive Dissonance: This occurs when we have conflicting information in our mind, or between our mind and the outside world. Dissonance is a term that comes from the musical world which has to do with a lack of harmony. Cognitive dissonance is a lack of harmony within our mind, and particularly the beliefs and information that we have. This conflict can be uncomfortable, and our minds will quickly go to work to become more comfortable. A key principle of cognitive dissonance says that if we are truly connected in some way to our position, even when presented with contradictory facts, we tend to become even more passionate, supportive, and defensive about our original position. Or put another way, we’ll play our music louder to drown out the music that is disharmonious with ours. For example, if we believe someone is disrespectful, and they do something that is actually respectful, we may have cognitive dissonance, as we have conflicting inconsistent information in our minds about this person. In an effort to be more comfortable, our minds want to harmonize the dissonance based on our dominant beliefs, which in this case, is the belief that this person is disrespectful. To achieve this, we may justify and brush off this person’s respectful behaviour i.e. “They must want something…. This is a one-time miracle…. This won’t last….” etc. Thus, closed-mindedness can come from our minds wanting to have harmony and comfort with their dominant beliefs of right and wrong.
  3. Confirmation Bias: We can all exhibit confirmation bias, which is our mind’s tendency to gather information that supports our dominant beliefs and reaffirms past preferences, and to filter out and discount new information that challenges those beliefs and contradicts past judgments. Our minds are likely to find what we believe to be true and real. Related to confirmation bias is selective perception: selective exposure, selective distortion, and selective retention. Selective exposure is our mind’s ability to avoid and ignore information that is inconsistent with our dominant beliefs. Selective distortion is our mind’s ability to alter the interpretation of information to be more consistent with our beliefs. And lastly, selective retention is our mind’s ability to more accurately remember information that is more consistent with our dominant beliefs. For example, if we have a favourite colleague, we can collect – selectively perceive – all of this information that confirms our bias that this person is great. Now, if this favourite colleague of ours does something to someone else or even to us that is not so great, which directly challenges our bias of their greatness, we can have a tendency to employ selective exposure, distortion, or retention of this information – which means that we avoid, ignore, alter, or forget the unbecoming behaviour – in order to support our belief that they are great. Thus, closed-mindedness can come from our minds being selective, saying ‘yes’ to some information, and saying ‘no’ or ‘missing’ other information altogether.

So these are some of the main ways which our minds work to judge and be closed, one of the top challenges to teamwork.

I recently facilitated training for a team with a member who stated his belief that they are open-minded. His reasoning was based on the diversity of their clients from an ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual orientation perspective.

This is all great and definitely part of being open-minded. Another part of being open-minded, and maybe the most valuable and important part, is understanding the diversity. On a team, this includes not just being open to another demographic or point of view, but really understanding the diversity of people and thoughts.

From my experience, if someone says and thinks they’re open – they’re often not (potentially as a result of the default being closed-mindedness and bounded rationality, cognitive dissonance, and confirmation bias) – or certainly not to the extent of understanding.

To learn more about moving beyond closed-mindedness within your team and organization, and the Four Essentials for being intentionally open-minded, click here to get my complimentary ebook.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Randy Kennett

Randy is the Founder and Director of Learning and Client Services at Hone Consulting, where the priorities of their acclaimed training programs and coaching services are about teaching team members and leaders to be more effective team players to achieve greater teamwork. Randy is an international trainer and post-secondary business instructor, working with Fortune 500 Companies, and organizations of all sizes from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, bringing his 20+ years of career experience and credentials in human resources, business and adult education. He enjoys working with individuals of all positions, from entry level to CEOs, and volunteering with community leadership and youth development programs. To experience more of Randy’s work, sign-up for his free ebook and/or newsletter, and check out his complimentary four part training series from Team Player Fundamentals.

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