Mental models are detailed understandings of how the world works and how elements interact with each other. They are the networks of connected ideas that arise from learning. Understanding how your employees use mental models to make decisions can help you turn work experience into valuable lessons.
Mental models help us get along.
The concept of mental models has been around since at least the 1940s. Philosopher and psychologist Kenneth Craik wrote about them in his 1943 book, The Nature of Explanation. We know that our brains operate through complex networks of neurons, and similarly, you can think of mental models as networks of assumptions and knowledge.
For example, we have models of how grocery stores work, and we use those to successfully select and purchase food. Aliens landing on Earth with no concept of modern retail might incorrectly assume that they have to pay first and then select food based on what they paid. Or they may guess they should tell a clerk what they want and the clerk collects the items. You never make these wrong assumptions because, through your experience, you’ve developed a reliable model of how shopping works in this culture.
Mental models reflect our level of expertise.
At work, we create mental models that help us understand dependencies, causal connections, and probable outcomes. They help us predict what will happen and plan for success. When you write a project plan, for example, you’re using your understanding of how typical engagements proceed. Although it’s not clear that mental models are the only cognitive mechanism we have for making decisions, we often act according to these constructs. And some researchers conclude that we use them primarily to reason and make decisions.
The more richness and detail our models have, the more we behave like “experts” in our fields. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, who studies the characteristics of outstanding performance, observed that world experts did not have higher IQs than others but had very detailed mental models of their professions that gave them almost instinctual ability to make good decisions.
You and your team already have a good understanding of your work, but you can help people get even better by giving them assignments enrich their mental models. Here are some strategies to try:
Think outside the job.
Behavioral science writer, James Clear, suggests drawing on diverse information sources and creating connections back to your work. In other words, you may read a book on sports performance and draw connections between those ideas and your efforts to engage customers over social media. The unusual perspective can help you make surprising associations on the job. Ask employees to spend some time learning on their own about a topic they’re interested in and share with the team how it relates back to the job.
Get 20/20 hindsight.
Tom Vander Ark, co-founder of Getting Smart, also suggests daily reflective writing and actively asking for feedback from colleagues as important avenues to better mental models. Ask employees to review recent projects and identify assumptions that might have lead to poor decisions. Understanding where your past experience steered you wrong helps you adjust it for better results next time.
Explore “what if” scenarios with your team; imagine different situations, and discuss how you might handle them. Don’t worry that this exercise involves guessing about outcomes. Research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that when people try to guess answers to test questions first, they learn the right information better and retain it longer. So just by exploring possible scenarios, you may learn better from similar real-life experiences.
You could use this approach with upcoming projects as well. Predict what will happen during an engagement or meeting, then review what did happen in the end. It may help you focus on success metrics and identify warning signs or causes of failure.
Teach to learn.
A 2014 study in Memory and Cognition, found that students learned and maintained information better when they expected to have to teach it to others. Teaching someone else how to complete a task makes you take a broader perspective. You have to organize and present details in a way that helps others absorb them. It also forces you to understand relationships and categories.
Plus, when you teach, your “pupils” will likely ask questions you’re not prepared to answer, which identifies gaps in your own model and spurs you on to learn more.
If you’re not an educator or cognitive researcher, you may not have given much thought to mental models before. But all day, everyday, these conceptual structures guide our decisions. So helping your employees create a rich network of understanding about their work can pay off in a big way.