SBM Articles


Understanding Mental Models In Leadership

by Kathy Cooperman

This week I’m teaching a leadership course. One of the topics we’ve been discussing is that of mental models. In a nutshell, mental models are created from long held belief systems likely formed years ago. We rarely question the validity of these models because we were led to believe that they are factual. Because of this, we might have blind spots that negatively impact our decisions as leaders.

Peter Senge defines mental models as “deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”

The problem with mental models, then, is that at some point we took on the belief system of those who influenced us, perhaps in childhood or even within a work organization. We were not given objective data, but rather subjective information based on someone else’s judgments.

A few examples include:
• If someone is looking out the window for more than a couple of minutes they must be daydreaming and certainly not working
• Certain groups of people just won’t fit in with our organization
• Older people resist new technology
• Career is the most important part of a person’s identity
• Taller people perform better in sales

How might this look in the workplace? Let’s say you’re the boss of a fast-paced team. You send an email to everyone. Of the six people who report directly to you five replied within 24 hours of your email request. The sixth person, Sam, has not replied and it’s the end of the next day after your request. Quickly your frustration escalates. Within a matter of seconds, you’ve “climbed up the ladder” of assumptions and conclusions. It might look like this:

1. My email request was sent Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.
2. It’s now Thursday at 5:00 p.m. Sam has not responded.
3. (I selectively focus on certain data) Sam is the only one who has not responded.
4. (Assumptions and conclusions) Sam is ignoring me.
5. (Belief) I knew Sam was a bad hire.
6. (Action) I’ll remember this at his performance review—he’ll reap what he sows!

You can imagine that in this scenario, there could be many reasons why Sam has not responded. Taking a harsh reaction without knowing all the facts could be a serious mistake.

To be fair, mental models can be helpful by simplifying the world. The problem is that we jump so quickly to automatic beliefs and assumptions that we fail to question fact from fiction. Once we make up our minds, we seek data to support our perspective.

We cannot live without adding meaning or drawing conclusions. It would be inefficient and tedious. However, we can improve understanding and communication by using:

Reflection—becoming more aware of our thinking, reasoning, and perspective
Advocacy—making our thinking, reasoning, and perspective clearer/accurate
Inquiry—asking questions to better understand others’ thinking, reasoning, and perspective.

For more information contact Kathy Cooperman, KC Leadership Consulting, LLC,, 1 (866) 303-1996 or (303) 522-2114.


Submitted 3 years 117 days ago
Categories: categoryLeader Acceleration
Views: 2473