Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Mental Models

"Change the model" from Strategy Pit Stop (2014).
Mental models are personal theories that we have about specific human systems, and about other's expected behaviour. Mental models are based on our own assumptions and perceptions.

Assumptions happen when we see things that others do, and make a judgement call on the other person's reasons for taking that action. These are often incorrect, due to our human habit of connecting patterns (attributions), and of treating ourselves as the centre of the universe (Daft, 2008; Hellriegel, Jackson & Slocum, 1999; Grant, 2013). My Mother regularly quoted an English saying, that "Assume makes an Ass out of u and me".

Perceptions are how we make sense of the world, by selecting, organising, and interpreting what goes on around us. We can easily make judgement and attribution errors that feed our assumptions false information, as well as projecting onto others what we feel ourselves. Both can lead to biases and defensiveness (Daft, 2008; Hellriegel, Jackson & Slocum, 1999; Grant, 2013).

I teach an old case on my Leadership undergraduate course about Michael Alfonso, the freshly promoted commander of a newly commissioned US nuclear submarine. The new commander is given a set of task KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to achieve with his new crew during the commissioning voyage (Daft, 2008).

The result is that Michael becomes so task-oriented, he forgets to build a team. He is autocratic, savage tempered, punishes crew errors in public, and micro-manages. He achieves all his KPIs, but his people are wiped-out, disillusioned and ready to mutiny.

The result is that he gets fired. Michael is bewildered: he has achieved all his markers, so how can the Navy not see that he has done his job (Daft, 2008)?

My students tend to find that this is all Michael's fault. "He should have known that was not how to lead" is a usual comment. Michael's mental model appears to have been that of a 'command and control' leader.

I see this differently. I see that the Navy did not give Michael the support he needed to learn his job well, nor did they prepare him adequately. They did not help him to test his mental models before putting him under load.

Instead, they overloaded his existing mental models with: the responsibility of a new crew; the untried environment a new submarine; and during commissioning, or sea trials. When commissioning a new vessel, you load all the systems to determine where failures will arise. It is a highly pressured set of circumstances. This is a time when you need older, experienced hands to guide and support decision-making and team-building. Not a new crew and new leader.

Michael had no KPIs for team-building. If he had been psychologically tested, it should have been clear that he was a task-oriented person, so would need 'soft' crew commissioning team-building and crew empowerment tasks in addition to the 'hard', technical commissioning goals.

Thus, to me, this a failure in mental model on the part of the US Navy.

Mental models are powerful things. Adam Grant, in his book "Give and Take" tells about assisting the University of Michigan’s call centre with alumni fund-raising by changing their mental model. Adam looked at where funds went to, and found that most went to fund scholarships. He had call centre staff meet with a scholarship recipient for five minutes, showing them clearly the results of their efforts. This shifted the staff from 'begging' to focusing on WHY they were raising money, which doubled the "calls per hour and minutes on the phone per week". "Revenue quintipled: callers averaged $412 [per week] before meeting the scholarship recipient and more than $2000 afterward" (2013, p. 207).

We all need to think about our mental models, and how we can ensure they work for us, not against us: and that our organisation's mental models support us, not undermine us.


  • Daft, Richard L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (Fourth Edition). USA: Thomson-South Western.
  • Grant, Adam (2013). Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success. USA: Penguin
  • Hellriegel, D., Jackson, S., & Slocum, J. (1999) Management. USA: International Thomson Publishing.
  • Strategy Pit Stop (2014). Changing behaviour by working on the underlying mental models. Retrieved 17 January 2017 from

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