Chief Executive Officer,
Women & Leadership Australia

Leading through the Great Resignation: Uncovering our mental models

Leading through the Great Resignation is a series of articles exploring the tools and frameworks that will help leaders effectively navigate emerging workplace trends, by Suzi Finkelstein, CEO at Women & Leadership Australia.

There is no doubt about it – change is here. Right across the country, and in many different ways, we have been experiencing and adapting to extraordinary change for nearly two years.

For many of us, this period of forced change has prompted us to reflect on changes we might choose for ourselves. A slower pace. A move to the regions. A career change.

And many businesses are now presented with an opportunity to leverage the changes we’ve made to our workplaces, systems and policies to transform the ways we move ahead.

According to a recent report from Microsoft, current workplace trends suggest that “we are no longer bound to traditional notions of space and time to work together. Instead, we can set aside our long-held assumptions and shift our mental model to embrace extreme flexibility.”

But, change can be hard. We explore what it means to lead change in each of our leadership development programs at Women & Leadership Australia, because it is a challenge that all leaders will face, in many contexts, throughout their careers. Time and again we hear about organisational changes that – despite the best of intentions – fail to stick.

That’s where mental models come in. Mental models are the ways we think about the world. They might be subconscious assumptions, unspoken rules, or stories we tell ourselves without question, and while they may not be visible, they are certainly powerful.

When it comes to change, mental models create the foundations we need for success.

They underpin the invisible structures and patterns, and the visible behaviours that play out at work every day. If we don’t change the foundations, the structures and behaviours that result cannot really transform.

For example, let’s consider a team that has been working remotely for much of the last two years. Despite the changes in team behaviour, new ways of working and updated workplace policies, if the team continues to think of working in the office as ‘normal’, working remotely will continue to be seen as a temporary practice, and the workplace systems, team patterns and individual behaviours will easily slip back to pre-pandemic norms.

Now consider another team, who believes remote working opens up new opportunities for their business and considers hybrid working the ‘new normal’. They are more likely embed and leverage remote working practices, advocate for hybrid working arrangements within the organisation, and maintain this transformational change.

Over the last two years, many of us have made a change to our behaviour – working from home, connecting virtually, maybe supporting our kids through remote learning. We may have changed some of the patterns that shape our days – a new daily walking habit, or a different schedule of work hours. And even some of the structures that influence our work lives have changed – government-mandated practices, workplace policies, and the technological systems that have been adopted to support our new ways of working.

Yes, change is here. And as leaders, we have an opportunity to shepherd in lasting, transformational change, by digging deep into our mental models and exploring what else might be possible.

Tips for uncovering and shifting your mental models

  • When faced with a workplace issue, take time to pause and notice what are you paying attention to. Are there assumptions you are clinging to? Is there another lens you could apply?
  • Consider the mental models at play in your team or organisation. What are the unspoken rules? Are profit, service or product quality, team cohesion, innovation or harmony prioritised? How do these thoughts play out in workplace structures and actions?


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