As a quick recap, mental models are our deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works and how things ought to be. The mind forms patterns or models that define our sense of reality, that lead us to expect certain results, that give meaning to events and that predispose us to behave in certain ways. We think and act through our mental models. These mental models can keep us trapped in old ways of thinking and acting that often run contrary to our conscious objectives and cause us to get in our own way. To be an objective leader requires that we identify and transform the limiting and unproductive mental models that are driving our ineffective responses.

Since 2010, I have been conducting research to determine the role mental models play in management, leadership and decision-making.  From this, it appears there are several common mental models: External Validation, Competition, Perfectionists, Control which seem to all be rooted in an overall model of Insecurity or I am Not Good Enough. In the next few blogs I will discuss each and provide the preliminary results of The Objective Leader Assessment to help you, the Psychology Today reader, get a sense of your current level of objectivity and the mental models through which you interpret and respond to your world.

External Validation:  I Need Others To Like Me And Think I Am Smart

purchased from 123RF  stock photos
Source: purchased from 123RF stock photos

If you are like many people, you care very much about what other people think about you. In The Objective Leader Assessment, survey, 55% percent of people responded that their self-worth was often, more often or always tied to what others think. What we tend to forget is that everyone is instantly judging, categorizing, and responding to everyone else based upon a myriad of influences in their own mind. Often we are being judged and responded to in ways that have nothing to do with us at all. Picture this: I walk by a tall woman wearing a gray dress. Instantly I feel that I don’t like her, and I try to avoid her. Why? Because she reminds me of a teacher who called on me in third grade to reciteThe Emancipation Proclamation, and I froze. It was my most embarrassing moment, and that teacher’s image is now indelibly imprinted on my mind. Every time I see a tall woman in a gray dress, my mind calls up that embarrassing moment, and now I have an initial negative response to anyone that reminds me of the teacher. Our minds respond instantaneously, in the present, based upon memories of things that happened in the past.

Ask yourself: Can you afford to spend time worrying about what someone else’s initial response to you may be, when it could have absolutely nothing to do with you? Most importantly, can you afford to allow anyone else’s perception of you to shape how you feel about yourself?

Unfortunately, most of us can’t help it. In their book On Self and Social Organization, social psychologists C. H. Cooley and Han-Joachim Schubert called this phenomenon the Looking-Glass-Self and summed it up as follows: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” In many cases, we choose to associate with people whose opinions we value and respect—some psychologists call this the “in-group”—and we seek approval and validation from them. The opinions of this in-group become the basis for how we value ourselves, for our self-acceptance. The problem, given what we now know, is that if you base your self-concept on what you think others think of you, then you will always be vulnerable. Your self-concept has no true foundation. If the other person is having a good day and responds to you in a friendly, affirming manner, then you feel good. If not, you wonder what you did wrong. We are constantly trying to project an image of ourselves based on what we think others want, but since we really don’t know what hey want, what we are really doing is deciding what we think they want and then trying to project that image. It’s a losing game.

Take the case of Jonathan, a very astute white male in his early 30s who is a senior analyst in a financial services firm. Jonathan shared that it was difficult for him to admit how much his happiness depended on other people’s perceptions of him. What makes this common experience so insidious is that the same people from whom we are seeking validation are also seeking validation from us. It is how virtually all of us were socialized. Jonathan further describes his Validation mental model this way: “I am always looking for validation from others, especially at work so that I know that I am doing things correctly and that I am on the right track. Without this approval from others, I automatically assume that people disapprove and I begin to question my actions and beliefs and become very insecure.”

As we saw earlier, the problem with this is that the assumptions we make about what others think of us are often wrong. When we encounter unwanted or unexpected behavior in someone else, we think the person must be mad at us, so we should go and find out what we did to offend them.

Tips to Transform the External Validation Mental Model

The good news is that the neuroplasticity of the brain affords us the opportunity to literally rewire our neural net with new ways of thinking that will increase our overall success and happiness. The key to transforming the External Validation Mental Model is the recognition and acceptance that we have all been socialized to value ourselves through the eyes of other people and the understanding that we can learn to value ourselves. Think back to when you were a child. You only knew that you were okay if someone said “your okay.” Once you accept this natural tendency, then it is helpful to  spend some time in self-relfection and identify your unique gifts and skills that you value in and for yourself.  No matter what anyone else says, you know, for example, that you are loving, compassionate, hard working, and smart.  Once you can truly know and value yourself, then you realize that no matter what anyone else says, whether they validate you are not, you validate yourself. Moreover, you quickly recognize that whether someone validates you or not, it doesn’t change what you know to be true about yourself; you are still, loving, compassionate, hard working and smart!

Unfortunately, in many of my workshops, I have found that for some people, they have been so busy projecting an image of what they think other’s want that they don’t really know what is amazing and unique about themselves.  For them, I recommend a process of self-discovery to uncover their unique gifts and skills.

Remember the world is in your mind and what you think about yourself shapes every experience you have!

Excerpt from the Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are.

About the Author

Elizabeth R. Thornton

Elizabeth R. Thornton is a professor of management practice at Babson Executive Education, a program of Babson College.

You are reading

The Objective Leader

Are You As Effective As You Think You Are?

An example of how personal mental models can undermine leadership effectiveness.

Tool to Help You Challenge Your Beliefs and Change Your Life

The mental model transformation worksheet to help you change limiting beliefs

Why Does Change Make Us Lose Our Minds?

How can we embrace change, rethink the way we think and evolve?