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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Mental Models & Resistance

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #96

I'm obsessed with why most change initiatives fail. I've been intensely researching this topic for the last three years and am forming some theories about why leading change is so complex. In this edition of Leadership Thoughts, I'd like to share some of my findings with you, particularly around two key areas: mental models and resistance to change.

These two areas are essential elements to consider if any change leader is to be successful. Mental models display how our minds interpret reality, while resistance to change supports maintaining the status quo.

Mental Model

I first encountered the concept of mental models when I read Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. I realized this concept was crucial when researching why many changes fail. Most attempts at significant change fail because they conflict with our ingrained views of how things work, which prevent us from accepting the change.

Mental models are the thought patterns that form our understanding of how different processes operate. These stem from our past experiences and what we know about the world. They shape how we process and react to new information, and though they can be helpful, they can also be restrictive if not accurate or complete.

Changing a person’s mental models is challenging because it is a learning process that people must be willing to undergo. The organization can create a culture for seeking new information and perspectives while being ready to challenge assumptions. The process starts with us. The change in a person’s mental model that has been well established cannot be forced upon someone; it must be self-imposed. Let’s start by examining our openness to change.

Do we do the following?

  1. Reflect on our thoughts and beliefs while identifying the underlying assumptions.

  2. Seek new information and perspectives by reading, listening, and watching to expose ourselves to diverse viewpoints and ways of thinking.

  3. Ask ourselves, what if this assumption is not valid? Are there other ways of doing things?

  4. Develop critical thinking skills by analyzing and testing the validity of claims and assumptions.

  5. Be open to new ideas and willing to change your mind.


The inquiry we often receive is how to get people to accept the change effort. Resisting a new concept is a significant barrier that stops numerous noteworthy change initiatives. People instinctually resist changing out of fear of the unknown or a wish to keep the existing situation. A common factor in this resistance is a need for more understanding of the intention of the change, little or no involvement in the decision-making process, mistrust in leadership, or feeling that the shift will interfere with existing patterns or cause personal difficulty.

To overcome opposition to change, it is essential to deal with the underlying concerns and communicate clearly and honestly about why the change is taking place and how it will help those affected. It is necessary to be sensitive and open to feedback while addressing any issues of those resisting. These are some of the most commonly cited reasons people are reluctant to embrace transformation.

  1. Fear of the unknown

  2. Loss of control

  3. Inconvenience

  4. Lack of understanding

  5. Past negative experiences

  6. Threat to values or beliefs

  7. Personal bias

Understanding the concept of mental models and why people resist change is the first step in leading change. As long as change occurs because it is what the boss wants, it will never stick. To overcome the resistance to change, leaders must create the conditions and culture that stimulate and supports innovation.

In the next issue of Leadership Thought, I will share my thinking about two additional areas of successful change, the plan, and the public.


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