Applying Theory of Mind at Work

Other people have mental states and inner lives that will never be accessible to the rest of us. We all know this, of course, but I challenge you to think about whether you are really applying that knowledge.

By Chally Kacelnik

Have you ever said something you thought was pretty neutral and had someone be taken aback or affronted in response? Have you ever been unable to explain why you’ve experienced a situation or someone else’s actions in a completely different way to what they’ve intended? Are there times when you feel like you’re on a completely different planet to someone else and you just can’t bridge the gap in your perspectives?

It’s really hard to get out of that spot. Often, calmly stating your positions and your understanding just doesn’t cut it if there’s too far a gap between your realities. It’s much harder when someone doesn’t seem to understand that they should be trying to bridge that gap.

These clashes happen because we don’t all share the same mind (and a good thing too). Do you ever get the feeling, however, that someone isn’t applying that fact in practice?

In psychology, theory of mind refers to one’s capacity to attribute mental states to oneself and to others, and to understand that others might experience different mental states to those that you experience. It’s an aspect of cognition that develops during childhood, and allows you to make inferences about others’ thinking, feelings, knowledge, motives, and experiences. Theory of mind enables us to predict and interpret others’ behaviour. Being able to do this well can be a really important skill in human interactions.

Some people can do this better than others, and it takes time to develop. Others just haven’t learned to apply theory of mind in practice, and I see this a lot in organisations. Here are some examples of resulting behaviour:

  • Assuming other people will know or think all the same things that they know or think (or not considering whether this is important)
  • Not listening to team members’ contributions, ideas, or feelings
  • Treating others as a stepping stone for a goal or treating relationships as transactional
  • Not being conscious of the effect of their words
  • Not being mindful of what their behaviour signifies or symbolises to others
  • Not giving people all the information they need to perform a task, because they have not thought about what would be useful for others to know
  • Telling transparent lies, such as claiming credit for someone else’s work
  • Continual surprise at or incomprehension of others’ behaviour and responses

Does any of this sound familiar? Maybe a little too familiar?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a lack of practice or capacity in this regard makes one a bad person – although someone deliberately refusing to account for others’ mental states raises some serious red flags. (This is very different to people who don’t have a strong native capacity for theory of mind, and mean well, and try their best in dealing with others.) In any case, not totally understanding others all the time is inevitable. Moreover, part of respecting others is recognising that you can never fully immerse yourself in others’ mindsets. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. The work is to have account of others’ perspectives as best you can, recognise that a gulf will remain, and keep adjusting as you go.

What’s really heartening for me is when we receive feedback from clients and program participants that they’re now considering others’ feelings, ideas, roles, and career aspirations as a result of what they’ve learned about social processes and value systems through LKS Quaero’s programming. The capacity to recognise that shift in thinking and be open about it is to be applauded.

Other people have mental states and inner lives that will never be accessible to the rest of us. We all know this, of course, but I challenge you to think about whether you are really applying that knowledge. Have a think about this the next time you have to assign a work task or are listening to someone else’s idea.

At LKS Quaero, we help people to interact productively and positively to get work done well. For more information, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.