Are You As Effective As You Think You Are?

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

Posted Jun 20, 2017

Objective leaders must understand that effectiveness as a leader is directly related to the efficacy of their mental models—that is, how well those models drive their intended behavior. This may seem relatively straightforward, but it often is not.

Leaders face several challenges when they are beginning to identify and evaluate their personal mental models. Sometimes personal mental models can undermine our ability to be effective leaders. For example, we might think of ourselves as inclusive and fair people, yet sometimes our unconscious biases cause us to respond in unexpected ways. Similarly, many of us imagine that effective leadership includes collaborating effectively, yet our personal mental models, such as the Control mental model, drive behavior that has the opposite effect.  Here is a case study:

Purchased by Elizabeth Thornton IStock Photo
Source: Purchased by Elizabeth Thornton IStock Photo

Case Study:

I recently coached the senior leadership team of a large, well-established medical center on how to increase team effectiveness through greater objectivity. The medical center was founded in 1972 and provides health services to an underserved community outside of Boston. I have rarely met such a dedicated group of leaders, all so passionate about their social mission. The six of them had been working together for a long time and trusted each other’s commitment to the work. Sarah, the executive director, has been running the organization for over 30 years. She is a unique blend of intelligence, compassion, and efficiency. She cares about each member of her staff personally, and she is always looking for opportunities to improve staff communication and collaboration. During my first meeting with the senior leadership team, it became very clear that Sarah’s mental models had had a long-term impact on the overall effectiveness of the team. Their weekly meetings had become unproductive, with limited participation by the members of the team. The perception throughout the organization was that Sarah made all the decisions, and each member of the senior management team had to get Sarah’s approval for everything. While it was obvious that they all had a profound connection to the work, they were not functioning, as a senior management team should.

We started the process by asking each member of the senior management team to describe the mental model they have about the role they played in the organization. We started with Sarah, the executive director, who said her mental model is “I have to fix everything.” As it turned out, this was her personal mental model that influenced everything she did. Michael, who ran the patient-centered team, said that his mental model was to be responsible for his department and make decisions. Sarah spoke up and said, “I want all of you to make your own decisions, and take the weight off of me.” Janet, who supervised what was called the B team, spoke up and said that it didn’t seem that way to her. Instead, she said, it seemed that Sarah preferred making her own decisions and not involving any of them in her process. Sarah very surprised to hear that feedback. She replied that, from her perspective, she often asked for their opinions and was frustrated because no one responded. The team was surprised to hear that Sarah preferred more of their input and involvement. Darla, who was the head of call center operations, spoke up and said that when they gave her their opinion, they often didn’t know whether it was considered and what the outcome was. Sarah said she could certainly change that. Emily, who ran the nursing department said that when she came to Sarah with a situation about one of her staff , she assumed Sarah did not trust her interpretation of the circumstances and wanted to talk to the involved people directly to make her own decision. Sarah responded that after 20 years of working together, she absolutely trusted Emily’s assessment and did not want to talk to other people. Emily admitted that because of her own mental models, she was perhaps being defensive and was relieved to learn that the Sarah trusted her judgments.

Can you imagine how Sarah might have been feeling at this moment? Did she feel embarrassed? Did she feel unsupported, or even attacked by her staff? No, she did not. She was able to put her desire for her team to be more effective above her personal feelings.  Instead, she openly acknowledged that without her intention, her “I-have-to-fix-it Perfectionists” mental model compelled her to micromanage at times and gave her team the impression that she did not want their input. The team immediately saw how their individual mental models and their assumptions about each other were undermining their ability to collaborate effectively. The key was to develop a way of communicating naturally that would be efficient. Once everyone understood each other’s mental models and which models were either supportive of or disruptive to the goal of effective collaboration, we began creating new processes and procedures to support the new model. For example, at one meeting we developed a framework for decision making. We asked each team member, which decisions they were currently making, and which decisions they thought they should be making. In some cases, it was just a matter of empowering Ben, Sarah’s executive assistant, to respond to specific senior management requests without checking with Sarah first. In other cases, it was as simple as copying certain people on e-mails. They developed a framework for when Sarah’s involvement was required and when it was not, which empowered each member of the team. The team quickly became more collaborative through this process and it continued.  Everyone felt, heard, valued and supported.

As an objective leader you must assume that everyone is looking at things differently, through their own lenses, based on their unique experiences. The most important job for you as leader is to seek out, understand and value other’s perspectives and points of view.

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