Mental Models: Key to Success or Pathway to Failure?

by Michael Haberman on June 23, 2011 · 0 comments


For a recent lesson for a PHR preparation class I broke out my 1990 version of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and reread some of the information on his model of the learning organization. If you have ever studied for the PHR/SPHR you know that the components of his learning organization are systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. According to Senge all five are necessary for an organiation to be a learning organization. Three of the five are group oriented and two, personal mastery and mental models are primarily individual.

The section on mental models jumped out at me because I wrote a post on June 13, 2011 called An Important HR Skill: Question Your Assumptions, where I discussed the importance of questioning your assumptions about people so that you stay away from biases and discrimination. Senge takes it further and says you need to question ALL your mental models. He says the ” ‘Mental models’ are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”  Not only do we have mental models about people, but we have mental models about other things, such as what can or cannot be done in different management situations, what happens in various markets, what happens with the economy, etc. In order to keep these mental models from becoming a pathway to failure and blocking our route to becoming a learning organization we must question these models and learn about alternative models. Senge says:

“The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.”

Without this type of rigor, without the process of truly “baring your soul” you will not overcome your mental models and no progress will be made, either as a professional or as a learning organization.

I belong to a group of HR professionals, called HRevolution, that is trying to change the nature of how HR is done, both as profession and as a set of activities in individual companies. They are starting to break down some mental models, but I think for HRe to be even more effective we need to work on defining the mental models that are the pathway to failure to modernizing  HR and instead work to develop a consistent set of mental models that will be the key to success of future HR. Once we have a grasp of that perhaps we can work on the group componets of the five disciplines. The second personal discipline, personal mastery, is something that HRevolution members have a decent grasp of already. We all work to continually improve our knowledge in our profession.

I must admit that I have struggled with Senge in the past but this time it resonated with me. The experience of being involved with HRevolution and other reading I have done, such as Pink’s Drive, made the subject much more readable.

If you are familiar with Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, let me know your experience or points of view… or you mental model about its potential for success.

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