Sometimes you just need to let things gel in your mind for a while. I came to this conclusion in my investigations practice years ago, but only recently recognized it as symptomatic of a far more universal phenomenon, what mental health professionals call “cognitive overload.” Cognitive overload refers to a situation in which we are given too much information at once, or too many simultaneous tasks, resulting in not being able to perform or process the information as we would under normal circumstances.
By way of example, a friend who is an accomplished scholar attended a cross-disciplinary conference with a multitude of presentations and small group discussions. When I asked her about it as she was heading back home, she described her head as “spinning.” She needed time to reflect before she could respond. Another friend, a leader in the community, went on a whirlwind tour as a representative with other community leaders to another country, where the agenda was packed with speakers and programs over just a few days. He too needed time to process the experience before speaking eloquently of it to the community a week later.
Any time we are presented with large amounts of information we need to give ourselves the time to mentally reflect and contextualize it. That is particularly true if the information provides a different perspective or if it is laden with shifts in emotional state. Those two elements – of different perspectives and emotional shifts – often arise when conducting workplace investigations. Our goal as investigators is to gather information, in whatever manner and quantity it is presented, and it is not uncommon to experience cognitive overload.
Information Gathering Can Overwhelm
During an investigation interview, information may be presented in all different ways. Sometimes information is delivered sequentially, sometimes the recounting of events jumps between time periods, sometimes events are recalled thematically across multiple time periods, and sometimes they seem to hop around pretty randomly. In my experience, it is rare that I am presented with an account that is comprised entirely of organized, neatly-stated segments. Rather, during the interview I may need to continuously clarify points and confirm my understanding. After the interview I then need to assume responsibility for organizing the information gathered in a logical, coherent format.
Emotions are at play as well in an interview. An interviewee may be recounting a traumatic experience, responding to allegations where the interviewee feels misconstrued, or managing personal challenges that impact how the individual comes across in an interview. An investigator needs to maintain calm, but still gather relevant information. Sometimes that requires asking uncomfortable questions. Sometimes it requires providing the interviewee with time and space to respond. Staying focused can be mentally and emotionally draining for the investigator.
Allow Time to Process
While not every investigation produces cognitive overload, an investigator needs to plan for that possibility from the outset. As a rule of thumb I almost never schedule interviews of anyone else on the same day as the complainant. I need to allow myself time to absorb what has been recounted, identify all the issues being raised, and plan the next steps in my investigation, which may be quite different from what was anticipated at the outset.
Other interviews may similarly warrant strategically placed breaks. Interviewing a respondent often is also best planned for a day separate from other interviews. While it is more feasible (and at times necessary) to stack several interviews of others with relevant information in a single day, allow space and the possibility of needing to shift that schedule or follow up with an interviewee on another day. Information provided in one interview may introduce new elements to the investigation and require you to prepare questions for subsequent interviews that reflect those additional points. Or a particular interview may prove to be so draining that you are not able immediately to pivot to another one and maintain the requisite focus and composure. Spacing interviews helps avoid those challenges.
Another consideration is when to provide updates to one or more parties with an interest in the progress of the investigation. I prefer not to provide daily debriefings to a client contact as an investigation unfolds. My daily debriefing is inevitably raw, unfiltered, and at times a bit disjointed. It reflects how I received information from the interviewee but usually not how that information fits with other information I have gathered. I can provide a more concise summary of my progress, status, initial impressions and next steps if I am allowed a day to pull those details together, separate from the days spent gathering information.
Cognitive overload is almost an inevitable by-product of conducting workplace investigations. While it may not be possible to prevent its occurrence, allowing time and opportunity to mentally process information that has been gathered can dissipate the stilting or even paralyzing effect of cognitive overload.
By Tracey I. Levy