Mental Models

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

We live in a complex world fraught with challenges that require large-scale change. Thus all of us need to become change experts who can function at the individual, organizational and societal levels.  These statements echo the themes of Katrin Muff’s blog last month.  I agree with her premises.  Therefore, this month I will build on her idea by examining the importance of mental models to change expertise.  This is a complicated and much discussed topic, and I don’t intend to cover it thoroughly.  I will merely introduce it in this blog and include my arguments as to why it is important for change expertise.

What Are Mental Models

Mental models are the frameworks and filters through which we view the world. Even though our mental models are often hidden, we all have them. They include our values, assumptions and beliefs, and they shape our attitudes and behaviors.  We develop our mental models through our individual and cultural experiences.

Ideally these frameworks evolve as we gain new experiences and information.

However, mental models may blind us to ideas that do not conform to our version of the world.  When these models become rigid, they can prevent us from understanding others and can limit our ability to find new and creative ways to solve problems.

Challenging our Own Mental Models

Assumptions are key components of our mental models.  And, by definition, assumptions are accepted as true without question or proof.  Therefore, we are indeed unlikely to be fully aware of the frameworks that guide our thoughts and actions. However, we can learn to bring our mental models to the surface and to challenge our assumptions.  Some common methods include:

  • Interacting with others whose viewpoints differ significantly from our own.
  • Exposing ourselves to situations outside of our normal experiences.
  • Asking ourselves why we act as we do.
  • Examining what our thoughts and speech imply about our mental models.
  • Analyzing how we developed our assumptions, e.g. what information, experiences, values might underlie them.
  • Actively look for evidence that might disconfirm the way we view the world.

Mental Models and Change

Mental models concerning change vary and certainly influence how change experts approach their tasks.  I describe the following two frameworks as examples.

Mental Model 1:   Many change experts assert that people naturally resist change.   They imply that the role of the change agent is to overcome the opposition.  They offer suggestions on how to understand resistance, how to prevent it, and most frequently how to overcome it.  They tend to recommend presenting facts, communicating frequently, making rational arguments and engaging in all kinds of persuasive techniques to win over the challengers.  Their desired outcome is to bring others around to their point of view. Most likely their underlying assumptions include the following:

 

  • I can change others.
  • Most people don’t like change and thus will resist it.
  • People are rational in reacting to change.
  • My efforts are effective to the degree that others adopt my point of view.

 

Mental Model 2: Now let’s consider a different framework for understanding change.  Change experts operating within this framework suggest that people usually react to change in stages. In the first stage, they are likely to experience ambivalence. The role of the change expert at this stage is to assist people in resolving this ambivalence. Thus the change expert would accept ambivalence as normal and acknowledge its validity to those experiencing it.  In this first stage, the change expert would assist others in weighing the pros and cons associated with the change.  They would ask open-ended questions as they seek to understand the others’ views.  They would engage in more listening and reflecting than telling and persuading.  They could tentatively offer facts and opinions only after listening to the others carefully.  When they do so, they should also share their own underlying assumptions. In all cases, they should remain non-judgmental and avoid implying that they have all of the answers.  Most likely the underlying assumptions of this approach include the following:

 

  • I cannot change others.
  • People experience ambivalence when faced with change.
  • All change holds pros and cons.
  • People react to change emotionally before responding rationally.
  • People will make their own choices as their ambivalence lessens.
  • My efforts are effective when people make choices and move forward.

 

I am not suggesting that one of these mental models is more superior to the other. I am arguing that the differing assumptions underlying each of these models will guide how the change expert acts.

In our complex world, no one has all of the answers for solving our individual, organizational or societal problems.  However, as change experts, we can function more effectively in all three levels when we learn to challenge our own assumptions. Especially at the societal level, our ability to consider multiple mental models is critical.  By exploring various ways of viewing the world, we are more likely to land upon new and more creative solutions to the issues that often seem to be so intractable.

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants, a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

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One thought on “Mental Models

  1. Pingback: 10 steps toward organizational sustainability | Building Sustainable Legacies

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