It’s that time of year – review season. You’ve hit all your deadlines, delivered high-quality work, and your teammates have nothing but positive things to say about you. You head into your review session with your manager ready to be showered in praise. “You’ve done a lot of great work,” she begins. You begin to pat yourself on the back. Then comes the dreaded but. “But,” she pauses as your heart sinks, “you just aren’t having the kind of impact we want to see before we consider a promotion.” She wants to see your work being used to influence more decisions at the company, she explains.
You feel defeated. How is it fair to have your performance rest on someone else’s willingness (or ability) to use your data in decision-making? Especially when product managers, designers, and engineers vary wildly in terms of their comfort and ability to use different types of data.
But deep down you know – whether fair or not – when it comes to working with data, it’s not enough to deliver a good analysis. Someone has to use that work to do something – create a product, cancel a project, spin up a new team, or simply make a decision – for that work to matter.
So what can you do to ensure that your work is influencing decision-making at your company? The answer lies in a simple but critical cognitive skill: putting yourself in the shoes of the person making those decisions.
This skill, the ability to think through someone else’s mental state, is known as Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind allows us to understand and predict others’ emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge. Armed with this information, we can tailor our data and deliverables to the decision-maker, maximizing the chance we influence the outcomes of the decision.
Using Theory of Mind successfully to influence decisions rests on answering three key questions:
- Who are the decision makers? – Identify one or two product leaders who have the final say in making decisions relevant to your data. Think about the role of the people you need to persuade (i.e. are they engineers or product managers?) and the level of leadership (is it enough to convince a team lead or do you need to go higher up?)
- What do they need to know? – Put yourself in the shoes of the decision-maker. What do they know, believe, desire, and fear? Include the right information in your deliverables to address any gaps in knowledge. Beware of any entrenched beliefs that could derail your presentation. When presenting your work, make it clear how it will help them achieve their goals. And make sure to address any fears outright.
- How do they make decisions? – Tailor your deliverable to match how your audience makes decisions. Consider whether your decision-maker is more likely to be convinced by quantitative data, a compelling narrative, or whether they need to experience the problem or solution firsthand.
Stay tuned for the rest of the series where we’ll dive deeper into answering each of the three key questions involved in applying Theory of Mind. Next up: how to identify the right decision-makers to optimize your impact.