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We all have ingrained ideas and beliefs about how the world works based on our own experiences, upbringing, culture, and values. Those ideas and beliefs -known as mental models, mindsets, or schemas – can help or hinder the development of abilities at work and in our personal lives.

Peter Senge, a noted lecturer at the Sloan School of Management MIT and co-founder of the Academy for Systems Change, defines mental models as “deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.” He also notes that very often, we’re not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.
At a practical level, what this means is that each of us views the world in a completely different way—through our own mental model. This unique mental model influences the ways in which we interpret events, understand problems, and develop solutions.

So what do mental models have to do with developing leaders?

Turns out, a lot.

An Example: One Mission, Two Mental Models

Let’s take a simple example of two different mental models and how those models could lead to different types of behavior in a business setting.

Meet Annika and Anthony. Both are regional vice presidents at GreatCo, a Fortune 500 retail company. GreatCo has several performance metrics, including customer satisfaction, and both Annika and Anthony are tasked with ensuring their region delivers on these metrics.

Annika believes the most important drivers of customer satisfaction are price and store cleanliness, in that order. In her opinion, employee satisfaction is not relevant to customer satisfaction.

Anthony, however, believes something very different. He thinks employee satisfaction has the biggest impact on customer satisfaction, store cleanliness has some impact, but price has the least amount of impact.

Now imagine that you are the senior vice president of store operations and you and a team of high-priced consultants have developed 10 initiatives to address a significant drop in customer satisfaction at your stores. Five of these address pricing and promotions, while the other five are focused on training and improving the levels of engagement in the store employees. You assign Annika and Anthony to execute these initiatives at their stores with the goal of improving customer satisfaction.

Fast forward to the next quarter and you find that Annika has successfully executed the pricing and promotional initiatives, and has done little on the training and employee engagement front.

At Anthony’s stores, the story is the exact opposite with all employee initiatives executed flawlessly and little progress on the new pricing and promotion strategy.

Both stores have seen little change in overall customer satisfaction, and your job is in jeopardy.

So where did it go wrong?

In a nutshell, they didn’t dig deep enough to understand that Annika and Anthony had very different mental models.

Think Differently, Act Differently, Make a Difference

There are countless articles and case studies just like this one describing the failure of organizations to adopt a new strategy, leading to losses of market share, revenues, and shareholder value.

One of the reasons why strategies often fail is because even the best leaders fail to address one of the most important drivers of behavioral change—mental models.

The key takeaway here is that in order for Annika and Anthony to implement your strategy they need to think differently about the problem, and the most important task for you as a leader is to help them do so by changing their mental models.

The good news? Mental models can change.

Making or breaking a habit involves a neuroplastic change in your brain. Our brains are capable of neuroplasticity, which is another way of saying we can change the way that we think. With neuroplasticity, neurons and neural networks in the brain change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. In other words, we can change the way we think.

Consider the act of learning to ride a bike. It starts off as something incredibly difficult for your brain and body to handle, and then as we develop new neural connections, it becomes easier.

Mental models can change in the same way.

Three Principals To Foster Positive Change

At The Regis Company, we create immersive learning experiences by blending industry-leading simulation technology with interactive activities and content that are backed by brain science and proven to promote measurable growth in people and business skills.

By focusing on how people think, as opposed to only what people think, we have created extraordinary experiences for learners and our clients.

At the core of what we do are three simple principles, tied to mental models, which we recommend you consider anytime you are trying to change behavior or implement a new initiative:

  1. Build awareness: Help your people understand their current mental models. The simple act of becoming aware of your current mental models can lead to changes in thinking and behavior. This can be done through various assessment, survey, and feedback tools.
  2. Accelerate the change process: Create training interventions that help people change their mental models. Simulations and actual experience are the most effective tools for accelerating this process, but there are many other experiences that can change the way that people view the world.
  3. Measure progress and set goals: Provide your people with insights into how their mental models have changed, how their current mental models compare with expert mental models, and how much further they need to progress.

Simulations – A Highly Effective Way To Identify, Challenge, and Change Mental Models

A simulation is a program that allows learners to learn from their actions and decisions with low-risk outcomes. In this way, the simple model becomes a powerful platform from which employees can learn from their failures, refine their problem-solving abilities, and develop critical and system thinking skills. Most importantly, the employees learn how they can contribute to the business in far less time.

Simulations fully immerse learners in realistic challenges that are emotionally charged and intellectually rigorous. By forcing learners to make tough decisions and difficult tradeoffs, they discover the interrelated system dynamics that exist within their organizations.

Three Reasons Why Simulations Work Better Than Other Learning Methods:

1

They’re built to mirror real-world scenarios that help learners connect new skills to their roles. Unlike traditional and e-learning, simulations are designed to mimic the complex, collaborative nature of the real world.

2

They compliment the brain’s natural way of processing information by building emotional tension, spacing learning for optimum retention, and presenting the cause-and-effect consequences of decisions and behavior.
This also helps learners fight the forgetting curve as they repeat skills in different contexts that help them transfer learning to the real world.

3

They help learners unlearn unhelpful patterns and rewire thinking to increase creative and strategic thinking.
Simulations do this by creating a safe practice environment where trial and error lead to personal insights, increased confidence, and muscle memory for strategic problem-solving.

Ready to improve the bottom-line and business performance?

Business simulation experiences, both virtual and in-person, have become the preferred choice by organizations worldwide to develop business/financial acumen and leadership skills at key transition points in their people’s career. They’re centered around how to think, not what to think, and ensure the learner identifies and explores their own mental models to effect lasting change.

The experiential nature of simulations maximizes adult learner retention, instills personal ownership, and drives curiosity and innovation, resulting in highly impactful decision-making and actions back in the workplace.

If you’re ready to build stronger leaders, then we invite you to explore our award-winning learning and development programs.

Want to learn more? Get our new guide - Accelerate Learning with Simulations.

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