Mental Models II

In my last post I talked about mental models and how they can impact our choices, perceptions and motivations. It’s a concept that I’ve begun using in some of my presentations to describe the assumptions we may hold about ourselves and others, or about how the world works, beliefs that we may not have examined very carefully.

I once worked for an executive who supervised a manager who was struggling to control an openly rebellious group of employees. When the workers and their union leaders defied the middle manager’s authority (as he attempted to carry out the executive’s unpopular orders), the executive threatened to dismiss the manager if he didn’t get things straightened out. When it was pointed out that such a threat was encouraging the rebellion, the executive explained, “I know, but I have to hold the manager in charge accountable.” In time, the unfortunate manager was dismissed. Even when faced with obvious perverse incentives and unintended consequences, this executive refused to reconsider his mental model.

We all hold mental models about what makes a good leader. That model might include things like the ability to define objectives and a course of action, and being skilled at convincing others that they should follow. Those attributes may sound reasonable and reasonably harmless—unless that model is held so strongly that anyone who questions the leader’s ideas or makes alternative suggestions is viewed as disloyal. Most of us have been around people who demand that kind of unquestioning allegiance and it can be very stressful. Not to mention shutting out good ideas.

The way organizations review ideas is no doubt heavily impacted by the mental models people hold. Yet those beliefs are rarely surfaced and examined. One of the primary reasons that one person likes almost any idea, while someone else rejects it, has a great deal to do with the mental models each person holds. But most of us don’t talk about those things. I’ve found that pushing for more decentralized or democratic decision-making often meets resistance—even when the value of those changes is obvious. My suspicion is it’s because it conflicts with the mental model held by many managers that their job is to make those decisions. They can’t bring themselves to give up that control because doing so implies that they’re not good at their job. Or, they fear that they will lose control, yet still be held responsible for the consequences of decisions made by others—a fear that may be justified at times. (e.g.“I have to hold the manager in change accountable.”)

I’d like to pose a question to you: Where do you see the impacts, good or bad, of mental models? Can you think of specific instances where the assumptions that someone brought to a challenge either helped them get through it, or undermined those efforts? Can you recall conflicts or misunderstanding that you’ve experienced on your team that might be explained by the differing mental models people hold? Who do you admire (or loathe) and how much of that opinion is based on what you perceive to be that person’s mental model?

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