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Why Great Leaders Mentalize and Five Exercises to Help You Do So

By Maria Ebro
January 4, 2023

Part 1
View Part 2 to this article here.

“Mentalization is to understand your own and others’ mental states that lie behind actions and behavior”1. In the theory of mentalization, we understand mental states as emotions, thoughts, intentions, wishes, needs, assumptions, bias, etc.

The theory of mentalization was proposed by Fonagy (1991) and developed by several authors over time3. Originally used as treatment for patients with borderline personality disorders4, mentalization is used within the fields of pedagogy and teaching, as a tool to enable better learning in schools and work with kids from 0–20 years of age with different disorders.

For years, we have talked about how ‘emotional intelligence’ has become more important, and training within relationship-building, trust and ‘understanding each other’ has grown tremendously over the past decades. Never has the industry of profiling each other with DiSC, MBTI, Whole Brain, etc., been so productive – showing that the need to understand your own mind, as well as the minds of others, has proven a valuable tool for growth in the workplace. Those tools can be a great help in understanding minds (if used correctly and not to box people in). But let’s look deeper into what the underlying reason for this is – let’s look deeper into mentalization.

System 1

Our system 1 is quick to react, always on and totally biased. It reacts and processes the world around you before you even realize it. This system has already judged the person in front of you before you have had the chance to shake his hand.

System 1 is also where emotions and experiences are stored and remembered. It is our long-term memory. It is vital for us to have this fast-reacting system, which also contains our memories to be able to quickly assess a situation of danger and react to it – BUT, as you can imagine, to be able to react this quickly, it simply HAS to understand the world through a pre-defined grid / set of boxes, which makes it heavily biased. By storing feelings, beliefs, biases, we use system 1 over time to create an understanding of ourselves.

System 2

System 2, on the other hand, is slow. It needs your attention to work – it needs your concentration to be activated. We use system 2 to solve complex and logical issues. If I ask you, for example, what 50 x 17 is, you will feel your system 2 starting to work.

Working as “knowledge workers,” many of us use our system 2 a lot as part of our daily work. We attempt to do that about 8 hours a day. Try for yourself to reflect on how long you think you can focus on a task at a given time; how many hours can you, for example, sit with a PowerPoint presentation, an Excel task, or programming and actively think about how to solve the issue?

When asking this across companies, most people tend to believe they can do this for 2–3 hours at a time. Some even say 8–9 hours straight. However, science shows that your system 2 has a capacity of about fifty minutes. Fifty minutes, and then it shuts down. Which means that having lectures for more than this, or very technical meetings, doesn’t make any sense at all.

Therefore, when you have to learn something new, you do it best by activating BOTH of these systems. Let’s take an example: If you are an experienced driver, you have likely experienced driving to work and then realizing you don’t really remember how you drove there. System 1 just drove you there while System 2 was somewhere completely different. When you had to learn HOW to drive, however, I bet you were using all your system 2 energy trying to remember it all, and your system 1 was likely also on high alert, to ensure no danger would occur. You were likely nervous, excited, and full of emotions.

What do system 1 and system 2 have to do with mentalization?

Mentalization is characterized by non-knowing – meaning that if you truly mentalize, you are aware that another person’s System 1 is never fully available to you (or even to that person), and hence you cannot know with certainty what is happening and should never assume that you do. The non-knowing approach engages your System 2 in actively mentalizing and trying to understand the other person’s System 1, without you forming an assumption up front.

Here, I would like to introduce the concept of pseudomentalization. Pseudomentalization is when we, with inappropriate certainty, think we “know” what is going on within another person5. When, without asking, we assume we know the intent behind the action.

Pseudomentalization is dangerous, in that we tend to believe we are good at mentalization and think that we are mentalizing about the other person when, in fact, we are only projecting our own feelings and bias onto the other person.

We typically tend to pseudomentalize when we ourselves have intense feelings about the subject or the person we are processing, or when we are stressed and frustrated. As soon as emotions are strong, our system 1 tends to dominate our minds (go into survival mode), leaving challenged our ability to actively reflect using System 2. Our natural survival instincts of System 1 take over when feelings are involved, and we regress into previous mental states and lose the ability to meta-reflect.

To understand the correlation between mentalization and our interpersonal relationships better, lets dive a bit deeper into how the ability to mentalize develops in the first place.

How do you develop the ability to mentalize in the first place?

Learning to speak is highly dependent on the child getting spoken to and hearing people speak6. Likewise, the ability to mentalize is highly dependent on the quality of early relationships between child and caregiver (parents, teachers, etc.). Namely, the mentalization of the caregiver in the early years.

For the child, the relationship with the caregiver in the early years is tremendously important in all aspects of development, but especially in relation to mentalization. The development of mentalization depends entirely on the attachments of the child to the caregiver. In a healthy and safe attachment, the child learns about themselves as an individual with a mind and feelings, but also about how other people have a different mind and emotions separate from the child. The child learns the appropriate level of nearness and distance to other people, and when uncertain or in doubt, the child feels safe that the caregiver has their back and is there for them. This safe attachment enables the child to grow mental flexibility that enables them to seek closeness and guidance not only from the caregiver, but also with other people and within themselves.

Here, we again witness a circular effect between the ability to mentalize and the state of the relationship in question. The primary caregiver plays a key role in developing mentalization abilities through the safe relationship and attachment created, and science shows that the safe connection is created through mentalization from the caregiver7. This becomes a circle effect, where mentalization enables a safe relationship, which in turn enables the development of the ability to mentalize. Likewise, the circle can be broken into a downwards spiral, where the lack of mentalization creates an unsafe environment, resulting in disorganized attachment where the child will then either try to hyper connect or detach completely to protect themselves, making mentalization even more difficult.

So, what does mentalization have to do with the workplace?

Over the past decade, the concept of “Psychological safety” has become the center of workplace conversations. When understanding the importance of epistemic trust in relation to attachment and learning, the importance of psychological safety only grows. Even more interesting is how mentalization then affects psychological safety, and how we can use mentalization in the workplace to advance that safety and trust and to advance our workplace development and growth through that endeavor.

The attachment between the leader and the employee is linked to psychological safety, and hence the employee’s ability to flexibly seek guidance from the leader, other experts and within themselves. And there is a direct link between the leader’s ability to mentalize and the creation of a safe attachment, where the employee feels that the leader wants the best for them, which again directly influences the employee’s ability to mentalize, as well.

When the leader understands and is mindful about the employee having a different and separate mind with a biased System 1 controlling the basic understandings and assumptions, the leader can then start reflecting on both their own and the employee’s assumptions and biases and ask to deepen their understanding of the employee’s thoughts, wishes, needs and assumptions. This active attempt to understand (mentalize) will further strengthen the relationship and attachment into a psychologically safe environment in which the employee can likewise grow their mentalization ability and generally feel safe to explore, learn and grow – to the benefit of the employee, the leader, and the workplace.

Why is mentalization important at the workplace?

Working with psychological safety and trust in companies has been a fluffy topic of trust exercises and experimentation over the past decades. But if we understand the ability it requires from a leader (mentalization), it enables us to focus on developing exactly THAT ability (and hiring for THAT ability) and hence we will be able to accelerate our company growth all together.

Already, massive amounts of training, courses and exercises exist within the space of mentalization – just not aimed at the corporate leader.

If we start using the exercises, we currently use to teach our teachers, to advance the mentalization ability of our leaders, we can enable the development of safe attachments in the workplace, hence enabling growth and development of all employees.

But don’t just take my word for it. Test it out yourself!

In part two, you will find five different exercises you can use to grow the mentalization abilities in your leadership group.

Maria Ebro

Engagement Manager,
Implement Consulting Group

With a master’s in psychology and in Philosophy, a coaching degree, and a number of certifications within people assessments, organizational development and project management in her backpack, Maria Ebro Andreasen has combined theory with real life experience. Through her past 10 years of working as a leader and with leaders from various global large-scale companies, Maria Ebro Andreasen has tested out different psychological leadership theories and manages to bring the world of psychology into the everyday life of practical leadership. Original article published here.

Maria Ebro is a Presenter for IIL’s upcoming Online Leadership and Innovation Conference! Register here.

Browse IIL’s Leadership and Interpersonal Skills courses here.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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