Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mental Maps: Why We Build Them and Why We Sometimes Need to Change Them

Sorry, no new post from me this week, I've been traveling on business and with the short Holiday week and other obligations, just couldn't meet my own deadline. However, I'm pleased to offer this part one of a two part post from regular Great Leadership guest Rick Lash, from Hay Group.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my U.S. readers!

Imagine that you are going sledding on a toboggan. You head out early in the morning. You are the first person at the top of the hill. The sky is clear blue. The snow is pristine with not a track or footprint in sight. You jump on your toboggan and slide down the hillside, plowing a fresh track in the snow.
Maybe the first run is a little slow, since you have to compress the snow into a track and decide on the best route down. But subsequent runs go faster and smoother. Over the course of the morning, your toboggan and your body weight compress the snow into a smooth, fast track. Pretty soon, you can zip down the hillside practically without thinking. The toboggan knows where to go, simply following the track that you already blazed.
The toboggan run is an apt metaphor for the mental maps that we all carry inside our heads. In many ways, our lives are based on patterns and repetition. We are creatures of habit. We take the same route to work each day, eat the same foods for dinner each week, spend our leisure time repeatedly enjoying a few cherished hobbies and performing our jobs according to a comfortable set of routines. As these habits become second nature, we develop mental maps as a way to organize information.
These mental maps guide our behaviors. They let us test out and plan actions in our heads. A surgeon, for instance, accumulates mental maps that help him or her pre-plan which actions to take in various patient scenarios. These mental maps are shortcuts that save us the time, energy and risk that we would otherwise have to face if we tackled each problem from scratch without relying on the benefit of our accumulated experiences.
(Incidentally, mental maps are not just a nice metaphor to help us visualize ingrained business and lifestyle practices. Mental maps are real neurological phenomena that govern our responses to physical stimuli such as taste and sound.)
Ordinarily, this process of building mental maps is beneficial. Day after day, the toboggan run gets smoother, deeper and easier to travel. Our mental maps get etched more deeply in our brains. But what if circumstances compel us to change these mental maps? In his 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Dr. Norman Doidge discusses case histories of people who have re-routed their mental maps after a portion of their brain is rendered dysfunctional because of mental limitations or brain damage. While each of these stories look specifically at brains that have been damaged, the book concludes that each of us has the ability to re-route our own mental maps to enhance most aspects of our lives – including professional development.
Therefore, what if we are promoted or transferred or asked to take on some new business challenge? Again, we stand on the hilltop with our toboggan. This time, we want to reach a slightly different destination, but our toboggan is practically preprogrammed to follow its existing route – our existing mental map – and take us where we have been going all along. 
How can we break free from the limitations of that old trail and blaze new trails, writing new mental maps that are better able to get us to our new goals? It’s not easy updating our mental GPS, but in his 2010 book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal TransformationUCLA clinical professor of psychology Dr. Dan Siegel not only claims that it is possible to redraw our own mental maps, but that the rewiring process itself has beneficial side effects.
“Our brain is like a muscle that can be exercised to create new neural connections,” says Siegel. “When we focus our attention in specific ways, we create neural firing patterns that permit previously separated areas to become linked and integrated.  The synaptic linkages are strengthened, the brain becomes more interconnected, and the mind becomes more adaptive.”
So in the real business world, how can executives who have taken on a new role go about redrawing their mental map so that their thought processes—and ultimately their actions and problem-solving strategies—are tailored to their new circumstances?
Broadly speaking, there are three primary ways in which you can redraw a mental map. You can:
1.      Change the way you think about yourself
2.      Change your behavior
3.      Change the context in which you operate
None of these changes is necessarily easy to make, but sometimes redrawing the mental map is critical for executives who find themselves thrust into new roles with different types of challenges and responsibilities. If you wouldn’t want to rely on a GPS with outdated map software, then you certainly do not want to depend on an outdated mental map for navigating the business world.
In a subsequent post, we’ll elaborate on each of the three suggestions listed above for updating your mental map to help you stay on track and reach your professional goals.
Rick Lash, Director of Hay Group’s Leadership & Talent Practice in Canada and co-leader of the annual Hay Group Best Companies for Leadership study. Rick works with executives to build the leadership capabilities needed to execute their organizational strategy. He specializes in organizational change, succession planning and leadership development; working with leaders and senior teams to refine their capabilities and create lasting change and improved performance.

1 comment:

AnaAlva said...

you are right,changing our mental maps is very challenging especially if we've been using these mental maps for quite some time. However, there are instances when we need to change and re-route to achieve what we want using other means. It's just a matter of right conditioning of minds.