The Discussion Topic: Caution – Mental Models at Work

A colleague of mine and I were talking to the company’s Client Services Manager about a client’s complaint last week. At issue was a client who was unhappy with the service they had received from our company. As the manager described the situation, I began to feel uncomfortable, frustrated and embarrassed that the client had been treated as described. There were a number of clear mistakes that were made and a few exceptional circumstances that contributed to the poor experience the client had. After the manager left, I asked my colleague what he thought.

To be polite, I was floored. In my colleague’s mind, the client was a troublemaker, looking for a handout, expecting something for free, knowing that we would oblige them if the issue was raised to a high enough level in the company. As I described my opinion of the situation, I feared for my colleague’s health as many times as his eyes rolled back in this head. Clearly, he thought I was overdramatizing the situation and letting the clever client succeed.

How is it then that two or more people can experience the same thing yet come away from this common experience with a different understanding? One way to explain this common occurrence is to consider the term “Mental Models” which has been used to describe these predispositions, these views of the world that we each operate from. Often, in day to day situations, we face experiences that are only partial portraits of reality. Like an incomplete glimpse of a jigsaw puzzle, our minds quickly create images and ideas that substitute the missing puzzle pieces, using a mental model to help us complete the image we see or the situation we face. Most of us subconsciously go through this process of “completing the puzzle” hundreds of times a day, often with puzzles linked together creating a compounding, disorienting affect.  Like most quickly assembled models, our mental images are subject to error which can often lead us to incorrect conclusions and ultimately inappropriate actions.

Take for example a scenario in which you’re asked to do something especially difficult for you at work. Maybe it’s calling an angry client, or providing (or getting) a performance review. As the time approaches, you run through images in your mind of how the conversation will go. The voices and imaginings in our heads frequently go non-stop, it’s hard to concentrate while we process these models over and over. Often, we get anxious, our heads or stomachs hurt, or some other physical issue arises. These are mental models at work in our mind, filling in the blanks, imagining what reality might look like. As usually is the case, once the activity actually happens we can start to replace our mental models for reality. The actual situation doesn’t seem nearly as bad as we initially thought.

In his book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman suggests that the creation of mental models begins early in our lives starting as young children. Mental models are influenced by four major factors, our biology, our language, our culture and our personal experience. He goes on to say that some mental models we carry are benign, they really don’t matter, while others have a significant bearing on how we see the world and our place within it.

The Take Away

There is an expression that goes something like, “not everything we think is true.”  Keeping in mind the nature of mental models, they cannot be trusted to serve as a replacement for the truth. Because these mental models are so prevalent in our daily lives, it’s easy to assign value to them. The cautionary word however, is to be aware of them with the idea that replacing them with information will result in more effective decision making and problem solving. Being open minded while placing value on individual and organizational learning is an effective balance to this natural mental process we are all inclined towards.

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