May 24, 2022

You can increase your mental complexity

You can increase your mental complexity

As organisations contend with greater complexity and uncertainty, they need people with higher mental complexity to meet the challenge.

In recent blog posts, I discussed the stages of adult development and gave examples of how to advance to higher stages by developing our mental complexity.

Mental complexity is distinct from (although correlates with) intelligence, and encapsulates how we make sense of the world, our awareness of the role our identity plays in that sense-making process, and the tools which we can draw on in that process.

These tools include our range of perspectives, labels, frameworks, stories and words to comprehend the world around us and problem solve. These tools are shaped by our identity, and shape our identity.

By increasing and deepening this range of filters, and in turn evolving our identity, we gain a more nuanced understanding of what’s occurring, which helps us make better decisions and take more effective action. In other words, we increase our mental complexity.

While this form of mental processing tends to increase with age and maturity, it can be stunted if not intentionally developed. Life experiences that create a rigid sense of self as a self-protection mechanism (eg trauma) can also impair our mental complexity.

There is overwhelming evidence that greater mental complexity is associated with greater effectiveness and enhanced performance in the workplace. As our mental capacity evolves:

  • we begin to take more responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • our interpersonal skills improve
  • we absorb and integrate more layers of information
  • we are open to change and contradictory views
  • we’re motivated to find and solve problems, and
  • we make better and more strategic decisions.

The good news is mental complexity can be nurtured through intentional self-enquiry / reflection, integrating feedback and mindfulness. Teams can develop this practice by making time to step back and discover the filters that are governing their thinking, decisions and relationships, before reframing their personal and collective perspectives. Because insecurities drive so many of our filters, cultivating compassion is critically important.

This is particularly useful in teams that loop around the same recycled issues such as how to have difficult conversations or change resistance. By exploring recurring narratives and identifying underlying beliefs, they can expand their frame of reference to find and test alternatives.

This can be a confronting process for some people, particularly if they’re constrained by their current way of thinking or level of mental complexity. As 60% of all adults haven’t progressed past the third stage of adult development, ie The Socialised Mind, they may not have currently capability to question the status quo and see a viable alternative. Harvard Psychologists Drs Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey refer to this as an Immunity to Change, where a person’s mindset limits their ability to let in opposing ideas or effect lasting behavioural change.

Next week, we’ll look at Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change X-ray as a tool to facilitate developmental progression to achieve greater emotional wellbeing and professional impact.

Want help breaking through personal or team-based habitual and ineffective behaviour? Contact me for more information about my programs.

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