Leadership and the Art of Mentoring through Mental Models

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What if you could build a stronger team by building a shared picture?  What if you could increase enthusiasm by reorienting someone’s idea of their own world?  What if you could increase soldier motivation by mentoring them to see things in a different light, hear their world more clearly and get a grip on their lives? Would that have value for you?

I remember being a young lieutenant and thinking, “if only I were a captain, they would listen to me more.” However, when I was promoted to captain, I realized I didn’t feel any more powerful or influential.

Then one day, I was sitting with some majors I had known several years, and we were chatting.  One of them offhandedly mentioned that he still remembered a threat brief I had given as a lieutenant, which had really reoriented his whole view of the problem and shaped how he thought about it today.

Well, it was like a lightning bolt hit me.  I realized that people had been listening to and learning from me all along and I just hadn’t realized it or been able to notice it.  That major’s offhanded comment unwittingly reoriented my view of the world and my role in it which naturally bumped up my self-confidence.

The map is not the territory” – First coined by Alfred Korzybski in 1931, describes the dichotomy between what we believe to be real in our minds (e.g. my young self, believing no one listened to me) and someone else’s experience of that reality (e.g the major clearly remembering my brief).  One’s personal reality, known in academic literature as a ‘mental model’ or ‘model of the world’, is built through our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. 

However, our senses are bombarded with eleven million bits of information per second, with our unconscious mind able to deal with only five to nine pieces of it at any given time. 

Thus, we are forced to filter it through our unique life experiences, both positive and negative, including pre-existing assumptions, dogmas, cultural upbringing and biases.  We take all these events and sensations that bombard us, filter them through this melange of subconscious beliefs, in order to make some kind of sense of the event; and then we build it all into an internal representation in our brains.

By definition, then, no two mental models will ever be the same as no two people, even twins, experience life in exactly the same way.  Importantly, our internal maps or ‘models of the world’, can be widely divergent from what actually exists in the outside, concrete world.  Further complicating it, our mental models continue to be dynamic in order to adapt to changes in the environment and will evolve as new learnings are added to our mental library.

Take for example one of my tours to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in 2003.  I was sitting at the airport waiting to come home.  I had spent six months travelling around Bosnia’s still war-damaged countryside, and read hundreds of reports on continuing inter-ethnic tensions and general corruption.  Mine was a dismal view of the country’s future.

Beside me sat several little old Catholic ladies with their tourist bags and prayer beads that they had bought during their pilgrimage to Medjugorje, BiH, the alleged site of a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary.  I guarantee that their view of Bosnia and their models of the world were very different than mine, even though we were sitting side-by-side, about to board the same plane.

Or how about a simple example – a piece of wood is lying on the ground.  I see a hockey stick, you see a piece of firewood and someone else sees a weapon that can be used to strike someone.

Or how about you think you are being helpful with your advice but the other person just hears you as meddling…

Even similar situations can result in drastically different models of the world.  After returning from patrol, grabbing a quick meal and living through the interminable debrief to capture key intelligence and info, three soldiers finally get a moment to sit back and relax.  Inevitably, they begin to throw comments back and forth about that day’s patrol. 

For Tommy, it was a complete waste of time – they didn’t get to see the local leader who could get the new community project moving and Tommy figured it was obvious the leader didn’t like the coalition forces and would not work honestly with them.  Sue did think it was valuable because she picked up a few good pieces of info that could help them pinpoint the insurgents in the village. Jerid didn’t remember hearing any info about insurgents, even though he was teamed with Sue throughout, but did notice new merchandise in the market and hoped next time he could grab some toys to send home to his kids.

One patrol – three different people – three different versions of the day.  Who is correct in their interpretation?  Short answer – all of them and none of them, depending upon one’s point of view.  A fourth person may even have interpreted the day completely differently from the others.  So how does this divergence in mental models happen?  For that, we need to understand the role of deletion, distortion and generalisation.

As mentioned before, we are bombarded by eleven billion bits of information per second, yet can only deal with a small number at a time so we are forced to filter them through our existing mental models in order to function.  To do this, we move information back and forth between the unconscious level of our mind, where we store long term memories and our complex models of the world, to the conscious level, where we then use words to express ourselves and communicate.

As we move from the unconscious mind to conscious thought, we select (mostly without realizing it) only some of the information residing there to be expressed externally.  This is the first level of filtering, known in the literature as ‘deletion’

Deletion enables people to focus on the critical aspects of our experiences and to ignore the vast amount of less important information encountered in daily life.  However, there is a danger of deleting (ignoring) information that is considered meaningless when it is not and this may impact negatively on the precision and accuracy of information conveyed to oneself and to others.”

Next, we give a simplified version, using words that can be imprecise or have different meanings to different people (again based on each individual mental model), which leads to distortion in the message.

Distortion is the process of misrepresenting incoming sensory information and modifying the meaning, interpretation and description of events and experiences.”  This is reinforced by “cognitive biases where people fail to adequately assess their capabilities, resulting in illusory inferiority or superiority.”  Essentially, distortion reinforces pre-existing beliefs, regardless of their true validity and regardless of whether it supports healthy or negative decision-making and actions.

Lastly, discussions are generalised to ensure flow in conversations, rather than bogging down in too much detail and “is the process of making general conclusions about an event by attributing the experience of one event to an entire category.”  Accordingly, it is beneficial when it allows one to use overarching principles from previous experience to adapt to new and novel situations.  However, it is detrimental when it is misapplied, using, for example, the actions of an individual to represent the whole group (e.g. racism, sexism) and, personally applied, where it can degrade self-esteem, healthy emotional states and cause negative actions, such as in spiralling and reinforcing negative emotional states and choices.

Critically, people will respond according to their map of the world.  Thus, “if you get your facts wrong, you get your map wrong.”  If you get your map wrong, you can end up heading in the opposite direction of where you intended – towards failure rather than success.  Even more importantly, once you believe in your map, it is difficult to change it without reframing.  “We all have deeply ingrained maps – all of us.”

Why do you care?  From a leadership perspective, a leader must remember that mental models shape behaviour and pre-determine our own and our subordinates’ approach to problem solving.  Once built, our mental models are “used to reason and make decisions” and will form “the basis of individual behaviours.”

Research shows that teams with congruent mental models created more elegant solutions and are “better able to anticipate one another’s needs and actions, to engage in more efficient searches for information, to jointly interpret cues in their environment, and to negotiate solutions to problems encountered.”

Thus, building a shared mental model between you and your subordinates and across the team is critical to higher functioning.  Next week’s article will give you practical examples of how to do this easily and effortlessly, now, with a handy list of reference questions and information about reframing for success. 

Until then, spend time reflecting on your own mental models and how they might diminish your self-perception or impede your success and how they could support you being the best you can be in your beliefs and actions.  After all, awareness is one of the keys to helping you and others be open to reframing for success.  The more you remain aware and accepting of the fact that you have biases and use Deletion, Distortion and Generalization, the easier it is to make changes through reframing and to achieve success.

About the author: Lisa Elliott has 30+ years in the Canadian Army, starting as a private, digging trenches, and now in the officer ranks, fighting paperwork.  She is passionate about figuring out how our brains detract from or contribute to our success and how to use this knowledge as a leadership tool. This is the first of a 2 part series.