Effective Leadership Training Foundations: Uncovering Mental Models

By Zachary Schreiner - August 17, 2017

Creating effective leadership training is rarely accomplished by identifying a single problem and solving for it.  More often than not, a single point solution is the seed from which future issues grow.  The best leadership programs address issues in a holistic way.  They seek to identify limiting mental models within an organization and create a learning environment where those mental models can be shifted.  Identifying mental models is critical to understanding the systems within which leaders operate because the mental models they hold define how they see the system and their place in it.  

Mental models can be defined as a “deeply held internal image of how the world works.”*  A rough manifestation of a mental model could be a set of heuristics a person uses to navigate through their day-to-day.  For example, when looking to staff a technology transformation project you identify a project manager who has an engineering background and dabbles in web development in her spare time. You assume she would be a great fit.**  

This type of mental shorthand may be effective but it is unlikely to be optimal, and it is likely the representation of a limiting mental model. So, how can learning and development consultants identify existing mental models in order to build impactful leadership development training programs?

Asking someone outright what their mental models are and how they affect their behavior in an organization doesn’t yield great answers.  However, an effective way of getting leaders to reveal their mental models is to conduct a series of interviews populated with questions intended to reveal underlying themes and motivations.  

Here are some lessons learned after years (and seemingly hundreds) of interviews with The Regis Company’s clients:

  • It takes a minimum of twelve interviews to get a broad perspective of responses with fifteen interviews being ideal. Be thoughtful and thorough during this part of the process.
  • Begin interviews with a solid understanding of the audience targeted for training.  Know what their education level is, how long they have been with the organization, the types of clients they work with, how often they travel, etc.  Though you may have answers to these questions going into each interview, they are easy starting points and allow the interviewee to get comfortable.  Once the interviewee is settled in, then they are ready for more probing questions.
  • Create questions that reveal underlying mental models and are grounded in empathy.  We have touched on the concept of empathy in a previous blog post, but it is an important concept to emphasize.  Approaching questions with empathy, understanding an individual’s experience on a purely human level, allows an interviewer to surface mental models faster.  

Empathetic questions are those that require an open ended answer.  They are the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” questions, not binary ones requiring a mere “yes” or “no”.  They ask interviewees to use specific examples and tell stories.  Empathetic questions aren’t leading and don’t suggest or hint at answers.^  Responses to these types of questions are where mental models are surfaced.  

Some surfaced mental models will be clear and apparent in interviewee responses, but many will take a little work to identify.  Here is an example response that exposes an interviewee’s mental model:  “I’m used to controlling the whole leadership development training program. Now I’ve got to bring in the analytics team in addition to my typical staff.  I’m not clear on what the analytics team does, I don’t know exactly what their responsibilities are, how they’re supposed to integrate with the other team members, how to present their findings, and  how their role will add value for the client. .”  

In this example, it is clear the interviewee has some significant issues with adding the analytics team to their project.  What is not entirely clear is why.  One possible mental model being expressed is this statement could be “I am good at delivering when the expectations are clear.”  

Creating effective leadership training requires identifying the predominant mental models across a critical mass of interviews.  Interviewing members of the leadership development training program’s target audience provides the best data about the systems they are working within and where gaps lie.  Gathering data around mental models is a critical step in creating an effective leadership training program.  Once the existing, potentially limiting, mental models are identified then the work can begin on how to transition to mental models that are more expansive and robust.

*Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline. 2006

**This is an example of the representativeness heuristic identified by Kahneman and Tversky.

^ For more information, see https://dschool-old.stanford.edu/wp-content/themes/dschool/method-cards/interview-for-empathy.pdf

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