pool-622497_1280Imagine a swimmer in a timed two person race who reaches the finish line before his or her competitor. Unlike familiar matches, each swimmer in this competition carries an invisible five pound weight on each wrist and ankle. If neither swimmer had ever experienced swimming without the extra weights, or was unaware that they were even there (cf. tacit mental models), the competition and victory would likely be experienced by the swimmers as a normal measure of their performance level for that event. By virtue of the victory, the winner of this invisible twenty pound race would be in a position to compete with winners from other similar competitions. Based on training, skill, and knowledge, record times would be cut shorter and shorter for those events over time. Fans would cheer and be impressed that competitors exhibit such athletic prowess and even experience amazement that times could be cut so short. Finally the best of the best would be identified (i.e. those who moved from good to great) as the winners who search for ways to further enhance their performance continue to amaze fans with their ever decreasing times.

If these top competitors had never experienced swimming freely they could never imagine what could be achieved without the burden of extra weights. But if their pre-existing mental models are still holding sway they are not even aware that they are not swimming freely! This example illustrates in simplified form what frequently happens in our personal and business lives on a daily basis. Although we may experience refinement of our ability to operate effectively in our world, our greater potential remains hidden from us. In some respects this is the human condition, but most of us live far more limited lives than we have to.

Our beliefs and mental models of ourselves and others limit us in at least two ways: 1. we define ourselves too narrowly and do not even entertain the idea that our level of self-awareness is not objective or realistic but is shaped by our unique histories and experiences; and, 2. we actively maintain illusions about ourselves and others that require us to restrict if not distort information and respond with self-talk and behaviors that are consistent with what we already believe about ourselves.

In essence, we contribute to what we see and interpret what we observe as validation of what we already believe. In many respects the uniqueness of our family unit and the trauma inherent in socialization determine how open we are to objective self-knowledge. This in turn influences our awareness of “others” as separate objects. Our culture influences the direction of our human struggle to reclaim our complete selves, but the options that are most appealing to us, and the risks we are willing to take, are ultimately a reflection of our relationship with ourselves. Even the way we respond to a truth is telling. In the words of David J. Lieberman, Ph.D., “A truth that you acknowledge does not offend. Nor does a lie that you know to be false. Only a truth that you don’t want to recognize as such causes you pain”

In essence, we are all like the weighted down swimmers to some degree, and required to expend unnecessary (and often depleting) energy to remain at the top of our game. As long as our competition is similarly encumbered we can still successfully compete in our particular invisible twenty pound race. But if our competition ever discovers (birth of self-knowledge) the weights and realizes that they don’t have to be there, the same feat could then be accomplished faster, easier and more comfortably. In these circumstances we could become painfully aware of the benefit that self-knowledge confers and the value it adds to successful outcomes. What our mental models prevent us from seeing is as important as what we allow ourselves to know and experience. It’s like having an invisible gate keeper that restricts what we see based on what we believe through the lenses of tacit mental models.

Much of our work at CEO Effectiveness is designed to reduce the gap between organizational potential and functioning by advising, coaching and consulting with CEOs, directors, and senior business leaders regarding transformational learning in their organizations.