By Scott Sawyer

NOTE: The image accompanying this article in the newsletter is entitled "A View of the World from Ninth Avenue,"  by Saul Steinberg. It was on the cover of New Yorker magazine on March 29, 1976  and is sold on the internet as a poster and a postcard.

We like to think of ourselves as practical. Nearly every action we take is based on the belief that it will result in a particular outcome. Our theories, built from experience, serve as the mental maps that guide our everyday actions.

Mental Maps and Culture

Mental maps determine how we see the world, our work, each other, and ourselves. They guide our daily behaviors. A recent project surprised a colleague. She was hired to help transform a large diagnostic imaging clinic from an authoritarian top-down management system to a more participatory one.  After a week of training devoted to opportunities, skills and logistics associated with self-managed teams, a nurse stood up and demanded that she still had a “right to have a manager tell her what to do and when to do it.   We bring our individual mental maps with us to our organizations as well as to working and problem solving with others.  

Edgar Schein defines organizational culture as the ways in which a group of people have done things for so long that they simply come to be seen as the only appropriate ways to do things. Culture is, in part, our collection of the mental maps that support our success.

Cross-cultural work engages many of the hidden or implicit theories we have about the world, each other, and about change itself. Unlocking individual capacity starts and ends with the mental maps people have in their heads. This article explores the importance of understanding mental mapping as the hardwiring aspect of culture that Edgar Schein describes. 

Maps as Cross-Cultural Learning Tools

Mental maps are just as real as those guiding us in the physical world. In a very real sense we are blinded by what we already see, and what we see is determined by the maps we use. Obviously, capable Cultural Detectives need to decrease the blindness caused by what we already see, and learn to see beyond the maps we are accustomed to using.

We usually believe that if our map works it must be correct and complete. In fact, following a map often keeps us from uncovering evidence of the map’s inaccuracies and incompleteness.

A key to facilitating cross-cultural skill building is to help others to see the limitations of the maps we have successfully used —whether those maps are physical or mental. We will look at four common realities that apply to both physical and mental maps. Understanding these limitations can enhance personal growth and cross-cultural effectiveness.

Map Distortions

Maps are drawn for a purpose, which inevitably leads to accuracy (or exaggeration) in one area and distortion of reality (or diminishment) in another. For example, a map designed to assist in navigating from one place to another may distort the relative size of continents and oceans. A map illustrating gross domestic product by geography will emphasize larger economies and minimize smaller ones. The map may serve one purpose but not another.

Many successful maps have distortions in them that eventually lead the map’s followers from success to failure. In fact, our natural psychological processes inflate what we know and deflate what we don’t know. The extreme state is we believe that what we know is everything, and that what we don’t know is nothing. 

The more successful experience you have with a map, the more convinced you become that it is accurate and complete. Following a distorted map frequently prevents you from encountering evidence of the map’s limitations. 

Central Position Maps

Quick: draw a map of your house and neighborhood. When you are finished, take a look at what you have drawn. Is your house in the center? Is it perhaps a bit more detailed or larger than the rest of the neighborhood?

Another common mapping bias is that of central position. With global cartography, this is the tendency to put your country at the center (with much detail and importance) and have every thing else revolve around you (with things in the distant rather vague and unimportant).

The first implication is that a central position map works as long as you do not venture outside of the known area. The second implication is that a central position map leads you to stay within the exaggerated area. Why leave when there is really not much else out there to see? Of course, staying at home only verifies the map’s success.

Facilitating a group’s or individual’s re-centering of a map of interpersonal effectiveness is often fundamental to an expanded intercultural capacity. Historically successful behaviors—such as “speaking up”—may not prove effective on an international assignment or with a new set of colleagues. New experiences can force the issue, revealing a successful map to no longer be effective. 

Strip Maps

A third type of map is a strip map. A strip map has a narrow or restricted view of the landscape. Usually it is coupled with a fixed sequence for getting from one place to another: for example, a map designed to get you to my house from your house.

A strip map may well serve its purpose. However, the user is well advised not to venture off the path—surrounding detail is no doubt lacking. The map to get you to my house from your house would probably not be useful to help you get to a theater, unless the theater coincidentally happened to be on the path between your house and mine

Strip maps get established because particular sequences and a narrow path have been shown to work in the past. When drawn on paper they often seem absurdly narrow; that narrowness is missed when we see it in our mind’s eye. We stay within the boundaries of the map and succeed in reaching our destination. Why would we consider another path if the current one works? The answer is that we don’t—who has time to argue with success? Only after a different route is shown to work or a new sequence is proven successful are we willing to challenge the old path. 

Upright Maps

The longer a map works the harder it is to change. In a real sense, all mental maps that have been used successfully enough to be retained support the belief that the only way to see a territory is the way that it has historically been seen. If you were a space alien viewing the earth from the moon, would north necessarily be up? In zero gravity, isn’t it just as reasonable for Australia to be up over as down under? The logical answer is yes; however, when you show an up over map to most of the world, they tilt their heads until the world seems right side up again.  

The point is that with enough exposure to any map, it becomes not just the “right” map—we end up believing it is the only way for something to be seen and therefore the map diminishes our capacity to see the world any other way.

Understanding the general nature of mental mapping can help us become more effective Cultural Detectives by helping us to see the habitual views we have of others, ourselves, our organizations, and the world. This understanding gives us a concrete experience of the ways in which we create our worldviews as well as the limits to any one mapping of reality.

Click here for some mapping activities