Managing Different Maps

James Swingle



I started reading books on NLP back in the mid 1980s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that I began formally studying NLP.  I was in the process of making a career shift from being a project manager to managing and training a group of project managers.  And with that new role came the need to not only do project management, but to understand enough about what I was doing to help others develop the same skills.  NLP, with its focus on modeling what works, seemed ideal to help break down successful behaviorsboth those I used myself, and those I saw used by other effective project managersinto specific components that could then be taught to my team. 


In other words, while it's easy to just tell a new project manager that one of their job requirements is to run effective meetings, it's not particularly helpful if they don't know how those they've seen chair meetings successfully go about it.  However, if you model the specific beliefs (e.g., it's okay to interrupt someone who has gotten off topic) and strategies (e.g., communicate a clear agenda to participants before the meeting starts) of people who run effective meetings, a new project manager can learn and quickly start to display the skill themselves.


Interestingly, though, as I was in the process of modeling what I and other project managers I knew did well, one of my most important lessons came from discovering something I wasn't doing well at all. 


As a project manager and then group manager, I had always vowed not to do the same annoying things my managers had done.  And to me, the most annoying thing was micro-management: a manager who could never seem to trust me to take care of things, who kept their nose in everything I was doing.  I committed to always being the kind of trusting manager I wanted for myself.  I focused on what I needed to do, and trusted my staff to manage their projects, pulling me in when they needed me.


For many of the project managers in my group, it was obvious my management style was ideal.  They loved the autonomythe fact I let them take responsibility for a wide range of decisions.  And they responded by keeping me informed of what I did need to know, bringing me into their projects when they wanted my input, or when things had stalled and they needed a more senior manager to give someone a little push.


However, one woman in my group showed me otherwise.  I'll call her Calliope.  Calliope was intelligent and strong-willed, with excellent skills and a solid background.  She was, in my assessment, a star in the making.  Yet, for some reason, her rising star didn't come through consistently.  She was regularly stopping by my office with what seemed to be the most basic questions, things I knew she must have been able to work out for herself.  She asked for more and more clarity on the guidelines and objectives I had for her.  I respected her desire for specificity, but the phrase "paralysis by analysis" often came to mind during those meetings.


At about that time, I was taking the NLP Practitioner training, and we did an exercise concerning "complex equivalents."  The phrase "complex equivalents" is one of those unfortunate bits of NLP jargon, but the underlying insight is quite useful.  Basically, while we might share a common denotation for a word (that is, we all know what the word "table" points to out in the world), our internal representation of the word is made up of pictures, associations, internal dialog and sensations specific to us (e.g., your internal picture of "table" might be the one at your favorite booth at a nearby diner, accompanied by associations of friendship, while another's picture might be the dining room table her parents bought when she was five, accompanied by associations concerning proper manners).  That is, while we all understand the word "table," our internal "complex equivalent" of "table" is made up of different pictures, associations, self-talk and sensations particular to our own experiences.


I had a beautiful experience of this with a classmate when we looked at our internal representations of the word "artistry."  I had been meditating and studying Zen for many years at that point in my life, and I wrote poetry.  When I heard "artistry," my representation was a Japanese Zen Master creating a painting, timing each stroke to occur on his exhale.  The associations were tranquility, precision, peace.  The classmate I was working with, however, had trained as an opera singer, a soprano.  Her "artistry" was the effort, excitement and raw power of hitting a high C.  While I represented "artistry" as a small, quiet, meditative gesture, her "artistry" was glass-shattering performance.


When I returned to work the following Monday, it occurred to me that perhaps there was a more useful way to look at what was going on with Calliope.  Perhaps that hands-off approach to management I saw as the equivalent of trust meant something different to Calliope.  And when I called her in to chat, I quickly found out my behaviors and attitudes, which I took to correspond with trust, did indeed mean something very different to her.  To her, my management style meant "I don't care."  It wasn't that she wasn't capable of making the decisions I wanted her to make for herselfthat wasn't what she needed when she kept stopping by to ask questions, when she kept scheduling meetings to go over things with me.  What she needed was to know I cared about her and the work she was doing.  And once I knew that, and could adjust my management style to what she needed, our relationship, and her career success, took off.


There is an NLP presupposition that "the map is not the territory."  That is, we have our internal representations (our own map), and we respond to those internal representations, not the external world (the territory).  Unfortunately, many who enter a position of authority, whether as a manager, teacher, parent or in some other role, take their own map as being the territory, and thereby impose that map on others.  This is not necessarily the result of bad intentions (I had nothing but the best intentions in developing what I thought of as a "trusting" management style).  Mistaking one's map for reality is, however, particularly problematic in managers, because their employees then have to navigate based on another's map, a map of which they often receive only cryptic glimpses. 


Given that one often finds oneself in a leadership role based on having more experience, I'd suggest the onus of flexibility should be on the leader, not their employees.  One of the challenges we should give ourselves is not to blindly impose our maps, but to lead with an understanding and sensitivity to both our own maps and the maps of those we manage.



James Swingle (Noneuclidean Cafe's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief) is currently offering training in effective management and starting your own business, as well as personal growth workshops and coaching.  You can find out more at  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Aoife's Kiss, Black Ink Horror, Susurrus, Byzarium and other publications.  You can find out more about Mr. Swingle's writing at


Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.



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