The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.” Due to innovation and disruptions caused by technology, some have gone so far as to say the pace of change is accelerating. Whether constant or accelerating, change leads to uncertainty, and uncertainty can feel, pardon the clinical jargon, “icky.”
Uncertainty produces anxiety, so humans try to understand and predict why things happen. We search for information and conjure up perceived causes to the various events and outcomes in our lives. Even with the exact same circumstances and data, two people can arrive at completely different conclusions about the cause. How can this be?
Doesn’t everyone think like me?
Individuals tend to favor certain explanatory approaches over others. Our mental models largely help us navigate uncertainty by helping us interpret perceived cause(s), give meaning to events, and shape our reality. Mental models are a belief structure that helps us explain how the world works and the origins of success and failure. These beliefs impact how and where we assign credit and blame, guide future behavior, and help us make sense of our actions.
Is it me or just luck?
Mental models are related to the extensively researched personality traits, locus of control and attribution style (or explanatory style). Those who have an internal locus of control tend to believe they play a big role in affecting the events that influence their lives. Internal locus of control is linked to self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a particular situation. Conversely, those with an external locus of control view themselves as victims of life. They believe rewards and punishments are controlled by outside forces, other people, or some higher power (e.g., luck, fate, karma, God).
Like locus of control, attribution or explanatory style is the way we tend to explain our circumstances to ourselves. However, attribution style considers more than internality and externality. According to the attribution framework, three dimensions influence how we form an explanation.
|Personalization:||Was the outcome caused by factors within or outside oneself?|
|Permanence:||Was the outcome caused by a temporary condition or permanently fixed factor?|
|Pervasiveness:||Was the outcome caused by a factor that is consistent regardless of situation or setting?|
Attributions are also influenced by whether the event is positive or negative. According to the attribution style research, it is considered optimistic and healthy to attribute positive events to internal, permanent, and pervasive factors, and attribute negative events to external, unstable, and specific factors. Conversely, a pessimistic attributional style is characterized by consistently attributing failures to internal, permanent, and pervasive factors, and successes to external, unstable, and specific factors.
Accordingly, the Psynet Group mental model paradigm treats attribution styles for positive and negative outcomes as distinct variables and explores the extent to which people attribute their successes and failures to personal control, internal characteristics, external factors, and other people.
Why should organizations care?
A national longitudinal study of nearly 3,000 employed individuals found those with an internal locus of control are more likely to have higher status occupations, earn more money, and report greater job satisfaction than comparable respondents with an external locus of control. Further, the data suggest that success at work enhances the expectancy of internal control.
Additionally, multiple meta-analytic studies (e.g., Ng, Sorenson, & Eby, 2006) have found that internal locus of control was positively associated with favorable work outcomes such as positive task and social experiences, greater job motivation and job satisfaction, stronger job performance, and better health, including higher self-reported mental well-being and fewer self-reported physical symptoms.
Is locus of control and attribution style domain specific?
Mental models and locus of control can refer to life in general, but attribution style can differ depending on the environment. Meaning, one’s belief structure at work, despite their general locus of control, can affect job attitudes, motivation, and performance. For example, a study analyzing over 180 research articles on locus of control found those who displayed greater levels of internal work locus of control performed better and reported greater levels of job commitment, and job satisfaction than those with a general internal locus of control. Further, those with high levels of internal work locus of control reported less burnout, absenteeism, psychological strain, and role ambiguity than those with a general internal locus of control.
Considering work locus of control generally yields stronger relationships with work criteria, it is important to use measures with domain specific (e.g., work) language like the Psynet Mental Models Assessment when attempting to predict job behavior and performance.
Psynet Mental Models Assessment
Research using the Psynet Mental Models Assessment is consistent with findings on internal locus of control; people who score high on positive personal control are more likely to use problem-solving/cognitive restructuring strategies and tend to experience more positive work outcomes, including:
- higher salaries and more opportunities for promotion
- stronger job performance
- greater job satisfaction and motivation
Our research found that salespeople who scored higher on positive and negative personal control received higher performance ratings and were more satisfied in their work. These findings suggest that more successful salespeople proactively manage their environment to create opportunities for successful interactions with customers.
Psynet Group research also indicates that people with high negative externality are more likely to justify unethical behavior; and those with high positive externality tend to have lower salaries, fewer promotional opportunities, and lower job satisfaction. Further, people with high negative and positive externality experience lower job motivation.
Finally, our research indicates that mental models can also impact turnover rates. At the organizational level, those with more members reporting negative internality experienced higher turnover than organizations with more members who score high on positive personal control; and organizations with members who have higher negative and positive personal control experienced lower turnover than organizations with members who have lower positive and negative personal control.
Mental models are a strong predictor of job success and organizational fit, and can predict variance in performance beyond cognitive and personality measures. Psynet Group is even more effective at predicting candidate success when the Psynet Mental Models assessment accompanies our critical thinking and needs and drives assessments.
We also found that when leaders and employees have different Psynet Mental Model profiles, the quality of their relationship suffers. If differences are ignored during the selection process or unaddressed while employed, this can lead to poor performance and/or withdrawal behaviors and turnover.
The assessment of mental models can be leveraged to enhance development and change interventions. Often our attributions and behaviors – even when dysfunctional – can make sense and perform some useful function. For example, blaming failure on others or bad luck can protect self-esteem by creating an external explanation for underachieving. Only through awareness of our mental models can we begin the process of understanding why we function the way we do and permit us to attempt change.
To be an effective learning organization, employees must do three things:
- Understand their mental models.
- Accept that their mental models may impose obstacles to optimal outcomes and recognize the need to change.
- Adopt new mental models.
Attribution style and work-related behavior are reciprocally related. Flawed explanatory or attribution styles can predispose people to perform poorly; in turn, poor performance or failure can induce learned helplessness. Fortunately, this cycle can be disrupted through coaching interventions and systems that promote, recognize, and reward personal accountability.
At Psynet Group, we complement our expertise as psychologists with assessment data to help clients make smarter hiring decisions, evaluate fit within the context of teams and organizational structure, and support professional development.
Curious about how mental models are impacting your workforce? Contact us at [email protected]
About the Author: Brandon Young, PhD is a senior consultant at Psynet Group