Simple Assumptions

Perhaps the most common mental models are simple assumptions, beliefs and values. They may be highly specific to our own situation, or they may be generalized: the assumption, for example, that ‘People are untrustworthy’ is a very broad belief of this type. We may find it in more specific forms, for example: ‘People in the marketing department can’t be trusted’ or ‘Customers who make complaints are usually just troublemakers.’ These simple mental models have an obvious on our behaviour: one person sees a customer who needs help, another person sees a troublemaker.

These are personal examples – although they are beliefs that might be adopted and promoted by groups of people. The leaders of organizations increasingly put more stock in statements of positive corporate values – such as: ‘The customer is always right’ or ‘Our main aim is to exceed customer expectations’. These value statements are intended to influence the culture of the organization, and to have a clear positive effect on the behaviour of employees.

In fact these value statements can often be used to demonstrate the difference between what Chris Argyris has called ‘espoused theory’ (what people say they believe in) and ‘theory-in-action’ (the values that appear to drive their behaviour). A company may have an inspiring list of positive corporate values, placing a high priority on meeting customer needs, while their employees and systems actually treat customer needs as secondary to the convenience of the company. In other words, the real models are quite different from those in the value statement.

Peter Senge is one of a number of writers who believe it is important to uncover and discuss the real values and beliefs that influence our behaviour, and the behaviour of groups within organizations. Limited and negative mental models will always hold back progress and development.

Beliefs we hold in common, as consultants and trainers, which support much of the work we have done, include:

People are able to develop and change themselves, their skills, their knowledge, their attitudes, their performance.

On the whole, working co-operatively with others is preferable to being in conflict or in competition with them.

These, and other beliefs and values have had an effect in shaping our approach as consultants and trainers.

We have also found that some useful models challenge common (and often deeply held) beliefs of many of the clients with whom we have worked.

Chris Argyris 1990 Overcoming Organizational Defences: Facilitating Organizational Learning Allin and Bacon, Prentice Hall

Peter Senge 1990 The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization Century, Random House