The 10 steps for facilitating a mental model change

By Eva Szekeres

How can you turn a challenging situation into a transformational learning opportunity and increase your leadership effectiveness by doing that?

How are you coping with learning and change?

Since Peter Senge (1990) wrote that the primary task of leaders today is to be learners themselves and to promote and facilitate learning in organizations so that people can continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models” it’s become commonplace that leadership effectiveness is strongly connected with the ability to learn and change. Both concepts are critical success factors for today’s leaders:

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change “



Leaders are challenged by the constantly growing global competition, continuous technological and organizational changes, employee and customer diversity, intercultural communication, multiple reporting relationships. Their scope and responsibilities have increased and they face more uncertainty and urgency than ever. They need to learn quickly, clarify their vision, make meaning of complex situations, tolerate ambiguity on a daily basis. They are working with others with different views from different cultures; so they need to be open towards multiple perspectives, be flexible, ready to adapt and collaborate. To manage change effectively, executives need to find new ways of doing things , adjusting their business models, build consensus. As a leader moves up the organizational ladder, the level of environmental complexity increases dramatically.

Disorienting dilemmas as a possibility for transformational learning

In our modern knowledge economy, we rely more and more on intellectual capabilities; we have less and less routine tasks to perform and we need continuous innovation, learning, and creativity. More and more people emphasize the need of developing a more flexible mind set which is achievable through a different type of learning. Leaders’ ability to respond to change depends on how fast they can learn and adapt, and what they need is a special, “unique form of learning.” Challenging situations – like downsizing, outplacements, mergers and acquisitions, or the recent impacts of the financial crises – can create a major disorienting dilemma which is highly destabilizing but which can also present a possibility for this type of “transformational learning.”

Learning is considered transformational when it creates fundamental changes to the learner’s mental model, makes him/her question existing assumptions, create a new perspective on an aspect of his/her life beyond a specific situation, or experience a change in his/her beliefs or values.

“There is compelling data indicating that disorienting events are a highly important (maybe critical) source of leadership learning.” (Johnson H. H. 2008) Typical situations where most significant learning experiences happen are business failure, failure to obtain an expected promotion, being fired, building an operation from scratch, launching a new product, managing a turnaround, being part of a task force, being given increased responsibility in terms of people or functions or on a more personal level – loss of job, divorce, marriage, back to school, moving to a new culture, loss of a loved one.

What do expatriates and successful executive leaders have in common in terms of mindset?

It is increasingly obvious that today’s business leaders need to regularly question their own assumptions, develop a flexible mindset, and stay open to new perspectives in order to succeed in global markets. As an educator by training and an expatriate for the last 25 years, I have been always intrigued by learning and change. Working as an executive coach in an international environment, I also noticed an interesting parallel between successful executives and expatriates in terms of mindset. Today, executives are forced to question their own belief systems and fundamental values more often than others.  Both need to learn new “languages”, decode new cultures, and cultivate their agility to change.  They also need to be more willing than others to accept that they make mistakes. In order to innovate and renew themselves, they need to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them. That requires emotional openness towards change. Today’s business leaders’ success depends on whether they can modify their mental models fast enough, and on whether they are open enough to acquire new, more useful models that are better adapted to the challenges these leaders face.

One way of helping this happen is through a 10 phase transformative learning process (Mezirow, 1990) and an effective coaching relationship.

Using this method, coaches can help executives reflect critically on themselves, revise and reframe their perspectives, in order to make their mental models more visible and open to alternative viewpoints.

The 10 step process for facilitating a mental model change

  1. Disorienting dilemma – business failure, failure to obtain an expected promotion, being fired, building an operation from scratch, launching a new product, managing a turnaround, being given increased responsibility in terms of people or functions,
  2. Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing in new roles and relationships
  8. Provisional trying of new roles
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective

Increased Leadership Effectiveness

Given that mental models determine how we think, what we think, how we behave and act, and that leaders’ mental models have a huge impact on their organizations, employees, and the change process itself, developing flexibility in this area has the potential for the greatest change. Executive coaches can make a big difference by facilitating this process, and they can create long lasting change for individual leaders and their organizations.

Contact Eva with a mental model challenge to start shifting your thinking now!