To what extent do you compartmentalize? Or rather, do you ever put things into categories to understand them? Psychologists define compartmentalization as a defense mechanism that we use to avoid the anxiety that arises from the clash of contradictory values or emotions. For example, a manager can think of himself as nurturing and sensitive at home, but a hard-nosed tough guy at work. These two self-images can coincide because the manager compartmentalizes his life, creating what I call a "mental bureaucracy."
We all compartmentalize as a way of organizing our lives and thought processes. We're inundated with so much data that it's often easier to mentally file information as "work," "home," or "family," rather than try to see how it might apply to more than one of those categories. Similarly, we compartmentalize our behavior and unconsciously act in certain ways when we're in different settings. This thought pattern also allows us focus on getting a task done at work even when we're worried about something in our personal lives.
But compartmentalization can also narrow our thinking so that we don't mix behaviors between compartments and make connections. Recently I was helping a training manager design a senior executive program: We discovered that he had invited three different experts to conduct sessions on what were essentially communications skills, and there was a great deal of overlap between them. He later explained that each came from a unique discipline (public relations, politics, academia) so he assumed that they would have different messages. Essentially, he compartmentalized the experts. In another case, I was coaching a manager who had publicly berated a subordinate who was now demoralized and insecure. I asked whether she would do this to someone in her family. Naturally she was aghast at the suggestion, but then began to realize how much she compartmentalized some of her interpersonal behaviors.
Obviously, most dysfunctional compartmentalization is unconscious. We don't intentionally act differently in different settings or try to pigeonhole people. But the bad news is it happens all the same. The good news is if we can find ways to foster mental flexibility and allow the boundaries between compartments to become permeable, we can develop more creative solutions and leverage better information. In the cases above, the training manager eventually challenged his three experts to develop a more integrated module on communications. And in the second case, the manager consciously identified positive behaviors from her family interactions that she could bring into the workplace.
There are two approaches that might promote this kind of "thought versatility":
First, engage unusual suspects in your problem-solving process. Intentionally bring together people from different disciplines, levels, or cultures to help you identify possible solutions. Encourage them to not only list ideas, but also put them together in unique or even crazy ways. Eventually, you may start to see opportunities that would not usually emerge. In our example above, the training manager might have begun his design thinking by bringing together a team of experts from different disciplines to brainstorm what should be in the curriculum, thus avoiding duplication right from the beginning.
Next, think about how you respond to similar challenges in different settings. For example, do you share your goals with your friends in the same way that you share your goals with work colleagues? Do you react the same when someone challenges your authority at work compared to when it happens on a non-profit community board? Are there differences in how you express disappointment at home versus at the office? Becoming aware of these differences may help you to develop a richer and more effective array of responses to situations.
We all deal with the world by putting information and behaviors into different compartments. But loosening the boundaries between those compartments can often be a powerful way to get things done.
What's your experience with compartmentalization, and your suggestions for getting beyond it?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.