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Understanding How We Understand

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The temporarily averted fiscal cliff, looming budget cuts, and sequestration—will it happen or not— are a just a few extreme challenges simultaneously testing our mental models or “perspectives on the world.” This would be characterized by many as constant “shift” and it can be a struggle.

Business defines Mental Models “…as beliefs, ideas, images, and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels.” defines the Mental Model “…as an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. These representations of perceived reality explain cause and effect to us, and lead us to expect certain results, give meaning to events, and predispose us to behave in certain ways.”

Think of a mental model as a schema (or map) for how an individual (and in the case of an organization, an individual employee) will process and interpret information. This schema is the roadmap for the unique reality of that individual in that organization. When our mental models are disrupted, even slightly, our internal GPS will detour and recalculate.

Leaders, managers, supervisors—this can be really important. It means that how employees understand their work is constantly in flux.  Add-in the anticipated disruption of organizationally planned change initiatives— and the lackluster results of the Best Places to Work index make perfect sense.

What should you do?

  • Recognize that mental models are hard to shift. Current events cause many of us to question our foundation or the perspectives we are accustomed to “believing in” or “leaning on” in both our daily work and personal lives.
  • Validate the shift. Create an environment that will embrace the dynamic mental model and reward the employee teams that develop unique transitional processes as a guide.
  • Integrate an external advisor or an internal team for support. The support should be to assist the individual employees with the mental model recalculation caused by change and if necessary, help navigate in a new direction.

Mental maps are the foundation of our global navigation systems and they are dynamic. The dynamic nature of “shift” can be positive or negative. It can make our daily work tasks less complicated or more cumbersome. If we define an adaptation process that will recognize, validate, and integrate the “shift”…maybe those elusive little topographic lines will become a little easier to understand.

Image via Viktoriya/

Dr. Victoria M. Grady is an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington D.C., Principal Consultant at PivotPoint Business Solutions and co-author of The Pivot Point: Success in Organizational Change.

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