Socrates was sitting outside the gates of Athens when a man came up to him and said, “I am thinking about moving into Athens. Can you please tell me what it is like to live here?”
Socrates replied, “I would be happy to tell you, but first would you please tell me what it was like in your previous home city?”
The man told him, “Oh, it was awful. The people stab you in the back and rob you blind. I am not leaving any friends, only enemies.”
Socrates frowned. “Well, you’d best be on your way, because you will find the same thing here in Athens.”
A little while later, another man stopped to speak to Socrates. ”I was considering moving here to Athens. Can you tell me what it is like to live here?”
Socrates again replied, “I would be happy to tell you, but first would you please tell me what it was like in your previous home city?”
The man smiled and said, “Where I come from, the people all work together and help each other. Kindness is everywhere, and you are never treated with anything but the utmost respect.”
“Welcome to Athens,” answered Socrates. “You will find the same thing here.”
Socrates knew well that an individual’s mental model defines how they will treat and work with others. Over 2400 years later, we can apply that knowledge to create better professional development training programs.
Mental models are the lenses through which people see the world and everything in it. They help you bring meaning to an event, form a perspective or establish an opinion, and influence how individuals feel and react to you. Mental models represent how you see yourself, other people, and your company.
Peter Senge, MIT professor and author of The Fifth Discipline, points out, “Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”
Mental models are formed by your experiences. Consequently, some are better than others.
When there are gaps in your models—and there could be many—your brain will do its best to fill those gaps with information that best aligns with your bias. Since mental models are created and reinforced over the years, they are deeply ingrained in your brain’s neural pathways.
Neural pathways are like trails through the woods. If one person walks on a path one time, the trail will barely be defined and will vanish quickly. But if many people walk the same trail, there will be a well-defined path that is easy to see. These well-defined neural pathways become a comfort zone, a mental model.
We tend to fit many situations into these networks and, as a result, we often only explore options that fit our mental model and require little course change from our well-traversed paths. It becomes difficult to veer away from the established practices — even if they no longer apply. This is why the best leadership training programs push stakeholders to expand thinking beyond their comfort zone – or change their mental models.
The good news is that throughout life adults, as well as children, have the aptitude to change the structural and functional organization of their brains. Simply put, we all have the capacity to replace old mental models with new ones.
To create new pathways that enable optimal learning and talent development, the following phases need to happen. These phases, which are all interconnected, were uncovered during 13 years of observing learners actively participating in The Regis Company’s emotionally engaging and intellectually rigorous business simulations.
- You must surface limiting beliefs—During business simulations, we noted time and again that, even after going through hours of workshops and e-learning, many participants ended up reverting to old patterns, doing the very things they were told not to do. So, it is imperative that you uncover your mental models. You’ll know when this is happening because you’ll feel that sense of cognitive dissonance when what you believe is in conflict with what you are experiencing.
- You must suspend judgment—Remember, the pathways of some mental models are broad and deep and it will be hard to imagine going down any other path. To step off the path to create a new one requires that you temporarily suspend your judgment just after surfacing your mental model so you can see another perspective.
- You must plant signposts—Neural encoding refers to the connections that are created between stimulus and response. When the brain processes and synthesizes stimuli, neurons spike and connections are made. After you step off the path, it is critical to plant a signpost — something that helps you make a connection to the new path.
- You must strengthen the connections—Purposefully, take the new trail many times to strengthen the connections. You do this by inviting others to explore it with you, by running mental what-if’s, or by journaling to help establish the pathway.