Habit #4: A Systems Thinker Considers How Mental Models Affect Current Reality and the Future

Page 1 of 2: Mental Models

Habit Cards
Mental Models

When considering adopting a new pet, it is easy to imagine two people having very different reactions. Based on experience, one might see it as an opportunity for fun and play, while another sees a pet as an added financial responsibility. Mental models are the assumptions and beliefs people develop from their experience over time. Mental models influence the ways we interpret the world we experience. Because every individual has their own personally developed mental models based on their culture and life experiences, they oftentimes see the world in quite different ways.

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own … Expose your mental models to the light of day.”

– Donella H. Meadows

The Staff Meeting

The office manager, Judy, facilitated a staff meeting where she had to review new procedures for requesting and documenting vacation time. After the meeting, three different conversations took place:

Workplace Example


Judy shared with Marcus, “I was a little nervous at first, but after I introduced the new process for submitting vacation leave, everyone seemed to really buy in. No one even asked a question. It went much better than I expected.” Marcus responded, “I agree that people were quiet, but what made you think they were OK with what you said? Even though people were quiet, I sensed some tension and resistance.”


At the same time, in an office down the hall, Roberto said, “I can’t believe we have to go through so much paperwork just to take a day off! Judy’s expectations are unreasonable.” Elsa then said, “If you felt that way, why didn’t you say something? I don’t really care about new procedures. I will just call in sick when I want to take a vacation day — so much easier!”


In another office, Chris debriefed the meeting with Monica. “I’m surprised that Judy and the other managers didn’t ask for our input before dictating the new procedures.” Monica responded, “I saw it a little differently. I don’t have the time to give input about mundane things like paperwork related to vacation leave. I’m glad they made a decision and just told us what to do!”

When people look at, listen to and experience the very same situation, they can leave with diverse impressions about what occurred. Whether people are reading the same book or attending the same event, individuals derive their opinions and impressions based on their preferences and what they choose to pay attention to and value.

People pay attention to different things and notice aspects of their experience based on what is important to them. For example, a past experience, family value or a personal priority can influence what people hold as most significant. Important priorities and values contribute to the development of mental models.

Book Cover

Mental models are sometimes referred to as paradigms. In Donella Meadows’ primer, "Thinking in Systems," she discusses key places to intervene in a system to get more of what you want. These interventions are called leverage points. She proposes that one of the highest, most impactful places to intervene in a system is with the paradigms or mental models people hold of the system. She writes, “You can say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system … there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing. Whole societies are another matter — they resist challenge to their paradigms harder than they resist anything else.” (pp. 163-64)

Mental models, in the form of paradigms, can be difficult to change. It is unwise to think you can single-handedly change or shift another person’s mental model. However, individuals can develop and nurture the environmental conditions where people can reflect and consider their own mental models. This safe culture of reflection can foster desirable shifts and paradigm adjustments. It is a personal choice to be open to the “click in the mind” that opens up new possibilities. Systems thinkers recognize the power and influence of mental models, and this important Habit of thinking reminds us that mental models are people’s current reality and greatly influence their view of the future. In addition, Meadows goes deeper into her analysis of places to intervene in systems, and encourages us all to free ourselves of the strong influence of our paradigms or mental models.

“That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is ‘true,’ that everyone, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.”

– Donella H. Meadows

This flexibility of thinking and interpreting reminds us to enter each situation with a beginner’s mind in order to take in a wide pool of information. There is value in staying mindful of how our mental models are developed and how they influence our decision-making and actions.