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Thursday Thoughts: Challenging Mental Models

I am a graduate student at George Washington University and I am fortunate enough to be taking a leadership class with a former high-level government official. My professor has served at the highest levels of government, and provides a first hand account how to lead large, complex and bureaucratic government agencies. Every Thursday I’ll post some thoughts on previous lectures that intrigued me, hopefully they do the same for you.

Challenging Mental Models

Mental models are our subconscious view of what’s around you and the “boxes” various situations fit into. We hold models of ourselves, others, the environment, and the things we interact with. In any event that we encounter, our brain tries to place it within a “box” – an established mental model for order and how things will progress. Consider these mental models the hard-wired “easy button” for your brain. These mental models can differ based upon situations and people have unique ways how they their personal mental models are applied. The most important aspect when looking at your own mental models is not to get fixated on an event but to really think about what’s going on.

Challenging your personally held mental models is how you can leverage past situations of seemingly dissimilar challenges. My professor spoke of two crises where he managed large numbers of different organizations and people, but on first glance these two crises were almost nothing alike. The first captured the attention of the entire nation and the second was more of a humanitarian problem abroad. However, he was able to find ways to apply what he had done in the first instance and mold his thinking to the second problem for a positive outcome. His means of achieving success came with much tension and resistance from superiors, but by challenging commonly held mental model he succeed in ways more quickly and efficiently than would have been possible if he did not.

What should you take away from this short intro into mental models? Reflection is key. To not get fixated on an event and to really think deeply and objectively about what is going on is tough for many people. By reflecting on your past and looking towards the future you can see just how similar many complex challenges we face every day. Take your personal mastery, apply it to what you’re doing and think about what you’re going to do with your skills in the future. Challenging your deeply held viewpoints will help you develop who you are and what you do. This is how you build a craft, not how you build a profession.

How do you reflect on your past? Have you had any experience in challenging your mental models to gain a better understanding of what is going on during a crisis?

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