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performance in the workplace

Mental Models: Barriers

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You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.

Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.

Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.

What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.

Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.

To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.


Question to ponder:

  • How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?


You Can’t Unsee This

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We recently completed a client presentation on the importance of top performers and how their view of their work provides valuable data for management in the creation of procedures, training, organizational design, and other important elements in a high-performing culture.

At a casual lunch afterward, we were asked how we got started.

We immediately began sharing stories about early clients and some of our first investigations of top performers. This was followed quickly by some unintentional chest thumping about significant successes with other clients.

Later, on the drive home from the airport after a two-hour plane ride, it dawned on us: we both trace our starts in this rewarding field to the guidance and mentoring provided by Dr. Paul Elliott, who, in the late eighties and early nineties, was deeply involved with the concept of top performance and the importance of accomplishments or outcomes.

Nothing of significance seems to come easy. Though it seemed to make common sense that we could learn from those whose performance stands out from their peers, it took several months and many attempts by Paul for the significance of outcomes to sink in. The resultant perspective has forever changed our views on performance inside and outside the workplace. The significance of this shift in perspective is best summed up by another of Paul’s pupils who said, “Once you get it, you can’t unsee it.”

Should he be asked, Paul would likely credit his own “conversion” to mentoring by Dr. Joe Harless, creator of Accomplishment Based Curriculum Design. And before his death, Joe, in turn, credited his insights to his direct work with psychologist Thomas Gilbert, author of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, who is considered by most to be the father of human performance technology (HPT), and the better known B. F. Skinner, founder of what is called radical behaviorism.

As you can see, we are privileged to be able to stand on the shoulders of a long line of studied individuals who make it possible for us to see farther than we thought possible. We most certainly and simply say thank you to all—and mostly to Paul—for now that we have seen it, it’s impossible unsee it.


Question to Ponder:

  • Can you see it?


Mental Models

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We speak often about the notion of a mental model. But what, exactly, is a mental model?

Wikipedia defines a mental model as “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.”

We can add to the definition from the work of Jens Rasmussen concerning human performance in the workplace. In his description of mental models, Rasmussen states that

meaningful interaction with an environment depends upon the existence of a set of invariant constraints in the relationships among events in the environment and between human actions and their effects. The implications of the foregoing discussion is that purposive human behavior must be based on an internal representation of these constraints.1

As they apply to the workplace, those definitions are good places to start, but we’d make some changes. We are very particular about whose thought processes we consider. We focus on the thought processes of proven performers who exhibit top performance in the workplace. In our experience, top and average performers hold vastly different mental models of the work to be accomplished. In Wikipedia’s terms, their thought processes are different. As a result, top and average performers view their real world differently and obtain different results from their efforts in that real world.

As previously mentioned, we differ from Wikipedia because we concentrate our studies on the workplace. This is a more narrow focus of what Wikipedia calls the real world. We focus on how things work in the work arena, although many of the same principles apply to other areas of endeavor.

So here’s our slightly modified definition of mental model: an explanation of a top performer’s purposeful thought process about how things work or how top performers work to accomplish meaningful results in their work environment.

In the next several blog posts, we’ll explore some common aspects we’ve observed about the mental model of top performers.


Questions to ponder:

  • What is your mental model of how you accomplish work in your environment? Is your mental model useful in achieving high levels of success in the work you do?


1 Jens Rasmussen, “Skills, Rules, and Knowledge; Signals, Signs and Symbols, and Other Distinctions in Human Performance Models,” IEEE Transactional Systems, Man, and Cybernetics SMC-13, no. 3 (May 1983), doi: 10.1109/TSMC.1983.6313160.

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