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Mental models: How to work more effectively with others

Have you ever wondered why people act the way they do? Why they do things that (to us) seem strange? Our reaction to other people’s behaviour reflects differences in our mental models.

Mental models are our understanding of “how the world works”. We have these about everything from how to ride a bike to what it takes to be a good team player. Mental models are created by our inbuilt need to make sense of the world – the better we understand how the world works, the more effective we can be.

We act in accordance with our mental models. If I think that “A good employee shows their commitment by working on evenings and weekends”, that’s what I’ll do. My actions will be very different if I believe that “A good employee shows their commitment by making the best possible use of their working hours”. Mental models are so important because they are the drivers of our behaviour.

Have you ever compared notes after a meeting or movie and been surprised at how someone else experienced that exact event? Our blend of experiences, preferences and learnings make us individuals, so the way we each make sense of the world is equally unique. As a result, people often have different interpretations despite being in the same situation.

When we’re at our best, we recognise that everyone sees the world differently. Diversity in the workplace is a source of creativity and innovation. However, our mental models are so much a part of us – the lens through which we view the world – that when we’re under pressure, tired or experiencing strong emotion, it’s easy to forget that others view the world differently.

Under these circumstances, we can become upset when people don’t act the way we think they should. We can judge others for doing something ‘wrong’ – simply because they’re not acting in accordance with our mental models. These negative judgements often lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

Mental models provide a valuable framework to understand our behaviour and the behaviour of others in a more constructive manner. When a mental model we hold is challenged, we can often become upset and defensive. However, these situations can be a powerful learning opportunity.

Take a step back and ask yourself “Why am I reacting like this? Which of my mental models are being challenged?”

This approach addresses the source of the conflict – differences in thinking – instead of the ‘fault’ of an individual. These differences in thinking can then be explored constructively to find a solution that works for both parties. Applying this method can also leverage the benefits of divergent thinking, new ideas and challenging paradigms that lead to competitive advantage.

If you’d like to know more about how mental models can be used to improve relationships and effectiveness in your workplace, please email me at lorraine@thekayagroup.com.