In a previous blog post, our very own Zachary Schreiner highlighted the importance of the mental models used by leadership development firms. As a refresher, mental models are a person’s unique thought processes that shape their behavior as well as their approach to solving problems. Engaging mental models is the second of four cognitive conditions that lead to self-generated insights in leadership development training programs.

Short-term memories take up only a small portion of our brains—an area about the size of a walnut. As new information is added to our short-term memory, old information is pushed out. Many learning and development programs fail because they pack too many objectives and too much content into a learner’s head without triggering long-term memory. Since short-term memory is limited, more information does not equate with more learning. This is often the case when people are being taught what to think. Learners attempt to absorb mounds of information in a short amount of time, and only a small amount is able to stick.

In another common approach, learning and development training departments attempt to improve retention and engagement by breaking up content and threading fun experiential learning activities throughout. This helps increase the learners’ emotional state and the initial feeling that the information was valuable, but the noise of the learner’s everyday job inevitably replaces the good feelings and diminishes the perceived value. In our experience, this is what frustrates executives; they know they need training and professional development, but they don’t believe it will move the needle.

Effective leadership training engages the learners’ minds by creating situations that cause them to search their database of mental models to make sense of the situation. It is well established that good decision makers develop rules to help them simplify information processing when faced with complex decisions or problems involving risk and uncertainty.

This idea was first explored in 1963 by Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie Mellon University, and James March, professor of Management at Stanford University, in their book Models in a Behavioral Theory of the Firm. More recently, in the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky review the evolution. One consistency among all of the research is the power and influence that mental models have on people’s lives. Simply put, to change behavior requires a change in learners’ mental models. Therefore, it is important that learners actively engage their mental models to expose flaws. With long-term memory engaged and a mental model or framework activated, learners incorporate new information in a way that can actually affect their ability to perform.

Here are a couple of design principles we follow when designing leadership development training programs.

Put it in Context

Context warms the brain up as participants search their mental models for similar experiences. When challenged, learners will search their vast database of feelings and experiences to help bring meaning to the current situation. So, if employees are being asked to adopt a new strategy, align with corporate initiatives, or rewrite old organizational beliefs or mental models, then context is critical. They must be challenged in a way that breaks down existing cognitive structures and replaces them with new, more effective models. This occurs best when the context of the leadership development training program is rich enough to elicit emotional concern for the outcomes and accurate enough so that the effects of participants’ decisions are easily relatable to meaningful outcomes in real life.

On the other hand, if the primary goal is to develop fresh new models or merely have the learners become aware of new patterns of thought, then context is less important and can actually prove to be distracting. For example, if employees are being introduced to new topics like developing business acumen, then we’ve found it effective to start them out with simulation training that teaches the basic patterns of thought needed to learn and understand the business itself. However, for them to internalize and learn to see that their actions contribute to the patterns and behaviors of the organization, then we recommend context.

Let Them Discover It

Almost all organizations have some level of a documented strategy. But in most cases, there are only a few people within the business who can articulate how their individual actions influence it. Knowing the strategy is helpful. Developing the strategy is impactful. Knowing how actions and decisions affect the strategy is transformational.

“Strategy” is not something that can be defined as a learning objective by an executive team and proffered to employees the same way they learn passwords and security procedures. Strategy must become part of their mindset. So, instead of telling people what the strategy is, a better approach is to have them define it. If there is an already well-designed organizational strategy, then allow the employees to define goals and discover what it will take to achieve them. Either way, effective leadership training encourages participants to monitor their progress and make adjustments as they go. When they discover how their actions—or lack thereof—contribute to a goal or an organizational strategy, they take more personal accountability and responsibility than they would if they were merely told what to think.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

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