Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: The Lens Problem

Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE

In this Tips for High-Impact Teamwork series, we are discussing what we are learning from cognitive neuroscience and how that should influence our teamwork. In my last article, I discussed how our brains do not simply take in all the data in the world around us. Instead, the brain filters, prioritizes and reconstructs selected inputs by creating a series of cause-and-effect associations and relationships that form an ongoing story of what is “happening out there” in the external world. Reality is a bidirectional processing of data, a combination of what is coming into our brains and prior data within our brains that together influence the construct we perceive as reality. As I mentioned in my last article, this means that no two people are experiencing the identical event in exactly the same way. This is a fundamental type of diversity within teams. I think it is imperative that we are diligent in understanding this diversity because it can be the source of misunderstandings, tensions and outright conflict within teams when it is underrecognized and underappreciated.

In this article I would like to continue unpacking the processes our brains use to construct reality. The story our brain is telling us about reality is based on the external world, but it is influenced by several factors that we are rarely aware of. We “see” the world through a multitude of “lenses” or factors that influence how our brain processes inputs. Those factors include the following:

  • Our DNA. You probably aren’t surprised that a neurogeneticist would start with this one! Our predispositions, personalities and tendencies are influenced by our genetic identity, and this can influence how we perceive the world. Some individuals are more laid back and lackadaisical. Others are high-strung and even anxious. Some attend better to details while others have a natural ability to grasp the big picture. These are not good or bad in and of themselves. They are simply differences. All these differences and countless others influence how each of us sees the world, and they can lead to differences of perceptions and perspectives within teams.
  • Emotions. This is a major influencer in how we process data from the external world. There is an enormous amount of data that shows our emotions influence how we see the world, and we are largely unaware of those emotional influences on our thinking, reasoning, problem-solving and other cognitive processing (Barrett 2018). This is one of the reasons it is usually best to forgo a difficult conversation when we are experiencing a heightened emotional state like fear, anger or frustration (the so-called “amygdala hijack”).
  • Environment and context. Our perceptions are highly contextualized. We tend to feel differently in an unfamiliar setting compared to a familiar setting. In a stressful setting, we literally see less in our peripheral vision so we can focus on the critical situation. This narrowing of our viewpoint can influence how aware we are of our surroundings, and this means we may miss important data that could have helped us better understand the situation.
  • Culture. This is also a major contributor to how we see the world. We are frequently a product of our culture’s values, principles, customs, priorities and ways of communicating. The way we were raised influences how we interact with the world and how we raise our own children. Different cultures view authority, conflict and openness differently. Some cultures value community more than individuality, while others prioritize individual freedoms. All of these tacit factors influence how we perceive and engage with the world around us, and we are woefully unaware of that influence.
  • History. William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The history we have with each other certainly influences how we perceive each other. If I had a tense conversation with you yesterday, I am probably going to be more self-conscious and tentative in my discussions with you today. If we have developed a strong interpersonal relationship with lots of trust, then I am more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you say something hurtful or let me down than if someone else with whom I have had a strained relationship says or does the same thing. History is a very powerful factor in how we perceive the world.

I am sure there are many other lenses than I haven’t listed here. The important point is that we have lenses through which our brain constructs our perceptions of the world. As Anais Nin observes, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

This concept of lenses comes from Nicholas Epley’s superb book Mindwise. Much of the content in this series of articles is based on his book and other writings, and I recommend reading Mindwise if this topic is particularly interesting to you. He refers to our lenses as “the lens problem.” As I read about his research, I don’t think he is saying that the factors themselves are a problem. Instead, the problem arises because all too often we are completely oblivious to the fact that what we call “reality” is based on factors through which our brain interprets the world. He writes, “The problem with a lens is that you look through it rather than at it, and so your own perspective doesn’t seem unique until someone else informs you otherwise.”

So, it isn’t a problem that our brain constructs reality based on all our intersectionalities. The problem arises when our brain presents our constructed story as “reality itself” and “ultimate truth,” not a version of the external world based on our lenses. Our brain doesn’t say, “Here is a nuanced, interpretative story of what is happening in your world today.” Instead, it simply presents the constructed story as “reality itself”.

Not only are we frequently unaware that what we see as reality is a perceptual construct that can differ across individuals, we also have a bias that people think and feel more similarly to ourselves than they actually do. Epley observes, “Survey after survey finds that most people tend to exaggerate the extent to which others think, believe and feel as they do.” With this bias in mind, we tend to be surprised when someone disagrees with us. The upshot is that when we engage in a discussion about a disagreement, we are usually listening to see if “they are right” (that is, “agree with what is clearly truth”) or wrong (that is, “disagree with what I clearly see as truth”).

Instead, I recommend that we try to take a different approach. For example, when working with my team, I should strive to listen to learn how the stories that their brains have constructed through their lenses are similar to or different from the constructed reality that my brain is telling me. If we approach discussions in meetings, team problem solving and frank conflict management with a sense of learning about different perspectives, then the shared reality that we build as a team will be much richer and more accurately nuanced compared to any one story one of us is telling ourselves. With this approach, team conversations can be richer, the solutions better and the understanding pronounced. I also think each person is likely to feel much better about the interaction because they have genuinely been heard and they have genuinely listened to the perspectives of others from a mindset of learning instead of from a mindset of defensiveness and argumentation. I appreciate that this approach can be very challenging, especially in highly emotional or tense situations, and I am still trying to improve my own listening skills to better hear other people’s stories. Yet I am confident that with discipline and practice, the effort will pay off for ourselves, our teams and the work that we do together.

Please try to remember that each of us and each person we interact with is a brain with lenses that inform our perceptions of the world. Approaching teamwork with this mindset has the potential to help us achieve higher impact. We want to learn how each person sees reality a bit differently in order to create a better and more accurate shared mental model of the world we live and work in together. Another reason to approach teamwork with this mindset is that different people actually see and take in different things during the exact same experience. This is what Epley calls “the neck problem,” and I will discuss this additional challenge to effective teamwork in my next Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article. 




Barrett L. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books, 2018.


Epley N. Mindwise. Vintage Books, 2014: 99-116.