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
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
, 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
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.