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My Coaching Tools:
Understanding Mental Models

Mental Models: Everybody has them. 

Mental models are representations of how something works, and they are used as an explanation of someone's thought process about what they are facing in the real world. Mental models can be incredibly important for humans, and by using them we are able to process thousands of pieces of information we receive a day much more quickly.

However, mental models can also hinder our ability to grow and see things differently. Therefore, it's important for leaders to recognize how, when, and why our mental models might be showing up, and how to overcome mental models that are blocking us from moving forward.

One tool that is useful to identify themes around why mental models emerge is a Mental Models Worksheet that looks at various statements that represent "Success/Work" Mental Models, "People and Relationship" Mental Models, "Leadership/Authority Mental Models, and "Problems and Possibilities" Mental Models. Some examples of statements included in this worksheets are "If I want something done right, I've got to do it myself", "Being loyal is what matters", and "Failure is a sign of weakness." 

 

In the Mental Models Worksheet exercise, individuals are able to identify mental models that they have created or learned overtime that are either helping or hurting their growth and development. Through this exercise, individuals can rate on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being never and 5 being most of the time, how often they align with a given statement. Once all statements and mental model categories have been rated, the individual who has gone through the exercise can reflect with their coach on areas where they scored themselves 4s and 5s, and begin reframing their mental models by sharing how it has served them and how it has been a barrier to them. Following this reflection and reframing, individuals can outline observable actions that will occur when they reframe mental models that have become barriers to reaching their goals.

One example of a time the Mental Models Worksheet was effective was with a client who was struggling with time management. When it was time to rank the statement "If I want something done right, I've got to do it myself", they gave this a 5. After further reflection, my client realized that they were taking on too much work and failing to delegate to their team, which was hindering their time management and ability to prioritize. This helped us become clear in the actions my client needed to take and mindset they needed to reframe in order to reach their goals moving forward.

The Mental Models Worksheet is a useful tool when the same phrases or themes are continuing to emerge throughout a coaching engagement. As a coach, I would use this tool after collaboratively sharing my observations on where I believe mental models might be showing up, and asking permission to explore those further. While this tool can be helpful in many situations and can provide increased self-awareness, I would not use this with a client who is hesitant to explore their own mental models further.

 

Managing mental models by "surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works" can help us continued to grow and build toward our personal visions (Senge,1990). By using a worksheet that provides statements to reflect on individually, we can identify key mental models, the negative and positive impacts of our mental models, and how we might reframe our mental models to help us reach our desired outcomes as leaders.

Tool Source: Executive Coaching Connections, 2014

Literature Sources:

  • Senge, P. (1990). Reflection and inquiry skills: Managing mental models at personal and interpersonal levels. In The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization (pp.191-202). New York: Doubleday.

  • Senge, P., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Smith, B., & Kleiner, A. (1994). Strategies for working with mental models. The fifth discipline fieldbook (pp. 235-263). New York: Doubleday.

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