Mental models are created in our brains quite automatically because they cannot maintain the myriad of details in the real world in real time (Senge, 2006, p.178). When I say automatically, I mean that we are often not even aware of this process. These processes of abstraction and inference can be very helpful in understanding and innovation. But once a model is created in our brain, it can be difficult to dislodge or alter, because we are not aware of the abstraction and we think that our model is reality. If the model is flawed or becomes flawed because reality changes after the model is already established, it creates a problem for us to improve or change, i.e. learn.
The way people interact with each other is filtered through the mental models that each of us maintain. How I respond in physical behavior is the result of what I think. However, the mental model is what separates what I think from the reality my senses take in. I call this a “generalization gap”.
All organizations have shared mental models. The questions are: are they a reflection of reality and are they healthy for the organization? In my own career, I know the company I just left had several unhealthy shared mental models, such as 1) we are a classical organ company, 2) we can only be a high-end products company, 3) our Japanese parent is always wiser than us because they are more profitable, etc. The reality is more like 1) we are a professional musical instrument company, 2) we combine high-end furniture with high-tech electronics and software, 3) we are different from our Japanese parent and we do some things better, etc.
The way people interact with each other is also filtered by what I call a “commitment gap”. What I say is what I think/do, but is separated by the level of commitment I have to the other person’s opinion or point of view (i.e. their mental model). Senge defines these different levels as compliance, enrollment, and commitment (2006, p.202-207).
In my last job, I was committed for many years. But, a major strategy change from corporate management resulted in me initially being at the grudgingly compliant stage. This caused a major commitment gap between what I did and what I thought. Maybe, I eventually migrated to the genuine compliance stage. But, I could not move along the continuum back to commitment. It became better for the company and for me to move on.
In a perfect business environment, there would be no gaps between what I say, what I think, what I do, and reality. But, like I said above, our brain cannot deal with the complexity of the real world, so an abstracted model defining what I think is inevitable. Therefore, the next best thing is for people to be able to build mental skills to dislodge or change their abstracted mental models of reality. There are several such tools that can help:
One can learn how to truly perceive the reality around you. With techniques such as mindfulness people can “slow down” their recollection of reality, examine it, and test it against their mental model. This is sometimes called “reflection”.
In an interpersonal exchange, one can engage in true dialogue with another that has a different mental model of reality. Dialogue is “ping ponging” the inquiry of another person’s model with advocating your model. Both of these skills can be learned.
Defensive routines are human coping mechanisms that protect us from the emotional pain of publicly examining our mental models. We can learn to create relationships and organizational structures that encourage the public examination of our models in an emotionally safe and secure environment.
In my new position, I do not yet feel safe and secure, so I am likely to become defensive if my management approach is publicly examined. My new company has a high-performance and accountable culture, which can initially feel less safe. But it is also an environment that (hopefully) tolerates failure and sees it as part of the improvement process.
During the StrengthFinder 2 Assessment (Rath & Conche, 2008), for me the main areas in which I needed improvement were in relationship building. I need to develop this area of strength to help me improve inquiry and reduce defensive routines.
We can learn to honestly examine and work to reduce the difference between what we think and what we do. This is an element of what Senge calls “personal mastery” (2006, p.148). A high integrity environment also helps reduce the gap between what we say and what we do.
This also ties into being an accountable culture. It is challenging for a person that is making a switch between a company that has low integrity and an unaccountable culture to one that has high integrity and is accountable. The natural tendency is to develop defensive routines. However, if these can be avoided or unlearned, he can move further along toward personal mastery.
We can learn to use a tool called the “left-hand column” (Senge, 2006, p.180) to help us balance inquiry and advocacy in a particular interaction between people. And, we can use graphical tools such as the “ladder of inference” (Senge, 1994, p.242-246 ) to help us identify where we are abstracting, which allows us to examine the abstraction’s accuracy.
Finally, we can learn about mental models, how they come about, and how to change them, simply by being aware they exist. They are so automatic that, unless we are looking for them, we won’t know they are there.
Rath, T. and Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths based leadership. New York: Gallup Press, 2008.
Senge, P. (2006), The Fifth Discipline (Revised ed.). New York: Currency.
Senge, P. M. (1994). The Fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency, Doubleday.