The lessons of Greenland’s settlers: Mental Models, Change, and Identity in Transformation

How can organizations overcome deep-seated resistance to change and transform successfully? The answer lies in understanding the profound impact of mental models – the lenses through which we perceive the world and ourselves. This phenomenon is vividly illustrated by the mysterious disappearance of the Norwegian colony in Greenland.    

The Norwegians colonized Greenland in 984 and established several settlements. After a period of prosperity, the colonies gradually declined until around 1400, when all evidence of life in the colony disappeared. Archaeological excavations have shown that the inhabitants died of hunger and cold, eventually eating their dogs and young animals and burning anything that could be burned for heat. They starved even though they lived by a sea teeming with fish and seals that were easy to catch. And yet, fish consumption, which was very low at the beginning of the colony, gradually increased to make up 80% of the diet by the end. But it was too late.

The collapse of the Norwegian settlement is all the more surprising when one considers that the Inuit, the historic inhabitants further north, had adapted perfectly to the circumstances, even though they also experienced difficult times. The Inuit were excellent fishermen. We know that there were contacts between the two populations, so not only was the idea of fishing not hard to imagine, but the Inuit example was there to show its value. And yet it took 400 years for the settlers to do what seems so obvious to us, to transform themselves from herders, who had no future there, into fishermen.

What explains this stubbornness? According to the geographer Jared Diamond, the Norwegians were trapped in their identity. As settlers, they despised the Inuit, whom they considered primitive. Not surprisingly, relations between the two peoples were not good, and everything the Inuit did was viewed with suspicion. The refusal to adopt Inuit practices, even though they were experts at surviving in this hostile environment, had become a hallmark of the colony and part of its identity. Very few Inuit objects were found in the excavations. There was virtually no intermarriage. This behavior is not irrational or stupid: Isolated on the borders of Europe, it was important for the settlers to affirm their European and especially Christian identity in order to maintain a vital link to “their” civilization. The building of churches was therefore very important, mobilizing scarce resources: hands, which were then lacking for harvesting, but also stones and, above all, trees in huge quantities, which led to a strong degradation of the ecosystem. For a long time, the settlers insisted on developing cattle breeding, even though it was unsuitable for the climate, because they saw themselves as farmers. The construction of stables, a source of prestige in a breeding culture, thus wasted scarce resources. It was also important for their survival that the settlers received help from the King of Norway, and for this they had to have a bishop to remain a member of Christianity, which they received in 1118. All the bishops were European and came with a strong European identity. They imposed a strict maintenance of Christian and European identity, preventing any mixing with the pagan Inuit and imposing costly constructions.  

Identity stronger than hunger: Hvalsey Church from which came the last signs of the Norwegian colony (Source: Wikipedia)

To the end, this affirmation of their identity, a key to their survival in a world that seemed so hostile to them and in the face of the repulsive Inuit, prevented the settlers from adapting to the reality of their environment and from stopping eating meat and turning to the abundant fish around them. The transition from ranchers to fishermen took an infinite amount of time because it required them to fundamentally change their identity, that is, all the mental models that make it up. The social and especially religious pressure to resist must have been very strong.  

Changing the mental model is doubly difficult: it involves changing the deepest part of what defines us, and it involves changing what has made us successful and can continue to make us successful. We must therefore accept to sacrifice our current position and take a giant leap forward. Imagine that the Norwegian colony, say around 1200, realizes the failure of its model and decides to change everything. It reaches out to the Inuit, all is forgiven, and it becomes “native,” to use a colonial term that persisted until recently, reflecting the colonist’s horror of those who adopted local customs. The bridges to Europe would have been cut immediately, and the change in lifestyle would certainly have caused trauma: women learning to sew sealskins for kayaks, men learning to fish, all condemned by their religion. It is almost unthinkable. This explains why the introduction of fishing was so slow and could not save the colony.  

In the complex interplay between change and identity, the power of mental models emerges as a formidable determinant of transformation success. The fate of the Norwegian colony in Greenland shows that the very identity an organization or individual holds dear can both drive success and hinder adaptation. As organizations grapple with the imperative to evolve, they must navigate the delicate balance between valuing past achievements and embracing innovative change. The journey to transformation requires an awareness of the power of mental models, guiding efforts toward a redefinition of identity that can fuel growth while honoring legacy.

To learn more about mental models, read my article Collective Fiction or the Challenge of Transformation. See also: Why Transforming an Organization is Difficult: Resources, Processes, Values and the Migration of Skills.

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🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

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