By Andrew J. Blum, Managing Partner, The Trium Group
What is mindset? It’s that voice in your head saying, “This could be an interesting article,” or “I don’t have time for this silliness.” It’s always there, either consciously or unconsciously shaping everything you do. Ten years ago, the term predominantly was used in the esoteric realm of spiritual development. Now business leaders everywhere are using “mindset” as though it were a universally understood concept: customer-focused mindset, innovative mindset, collaborative mindset, and the Holy Grail—thesolutions mindset.Meanwhile, its definition and application remain largely misunderstood.
How Mindset Affects Our Actions
Mindset is the underlying beliefs and assumptions we bring to a situation, conscious or unconscious. It is our inner dialogue reflecting our view of reality, and it shapes how we interpret situations, how we act, and how we are acted upon. For instance, when you enter a dialogue with a creative mindset,you look to advance and build on the discussion at hand. On the other hand, if you approach a conversation with a critical mindset,you believe your value-add is to point out flaws and missing elements. Both creative and critical mindsets are essential in business, but when people’s mindsets are inconsistent with the needs and goals of the situation, problems occur—often in the form of unproductive or counterproductive action.
Mindset as the Foundation for Skills Training
Skills training will not lead to sustained behavior change unless you address underlying mindsets in parallel. For example, people can be trained in innovation practices—tools to advance creativity, such as the “plussing” Pixar is known for (Sims. Peter, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, New York: Free Press, 2011)—but those skills will never be effectively applied by someone with an unconsciously skeptical mindset. Skepticism will surface as negative languageand lead to a focus on flaws. Similarly, someone with rigorous quality management training operating from a creative mindsetmight tend to focus on what is working or look for opportunities to innovate but fail to identify and address flaws, breakdowns, or substandard outcomes.
Managing and Changing Mindset Through Responsible Inquiry
As success largely depends on ensuring the mindset people bring is appropriate to the situation, the first step in managingand changingmindset is creating awareness. When people are unaware of their own mindset, they remain in a reactive pattern driven by unconscious beliefs and assumptions. Though they may believethey’re trying to do things differently, they often experience repeated failures in the same activities because their actions are shaped continually by the same unconscious, unproductive mindsets.
In working with a senior leader at a large technology company (let’s call him Bill), I observed this dynamic in play and helped him apply a simple strategy to get control of and manage his mindset. Bill operated predominantly from a fear-based mindset with the underlying belief that he was “at risk.” Regardless of the situation, his immediate orientation was to look at the places where he was likely to be held unfairly accountable, or to the places where the opinion of others might negatively affect him. With that unconscious predisposition, nearly every action he took had some measure of defensiveness in it. No matter how much Bill tried to reshape his actions, they were unconsciously driven by a mindset of fear. This changed as we began to note and question his fear-based assumptions through a process called “Responsible Inquiry.”
When he would say something such as, “If I blow this, I am gone,” we agreed to pause, call it out as an assumption, and note the mindset behind it. With just a bit of dialogue he was able to see that his general fear of failure often was applied inappropriately to situations that, in reality, entailed little risk. We took this a step further and examined the actionsthat arose from his assumptions, and saw that as soon as Bill believed his mistake would get him fired, he immediately took a set of defensive and largely unproductive actions. Ironically, he began to see that those defensive actions were more likely to lead to him being fired than courageous actions he might have taken if he weren’t being driven by fear.
Through this simple process, Bill saw the connection between his mindset and actions. More importantly, he began to understand that his results were less a function of his actions than of his underlying thinking, and he was able to break the cycle of unconscious reactivity and make choices more consistent with his true intent.
RESPONSIBILITY—THE MASTER MINDSET
The entire process of mindset management is based on three premises:
Until a leader accepts his/her own “responsibility” in all of this, mindsets and their subsequent actions are something that will remain “outside of the leader.” Much of the work in mindset management focuses on developing awareness, followed by a responsible mindset driven by the underlying belief: “I am an integral factor in everything that occurs and can influence every situation through my thinking, actions, and reactions.”
Defining and managing mindset, along with developing a responsible mindset, offers leaders the key to fundamental change and previously unachievable results. Without these distinctions and practices, however, mindset joins the multitude of esoteric buzzwords that are thrown around without clear definition.
Andrew J. Blum is managing partner of The Trium Group, and a past leader at Towers Perrin and in the U.S. Marine Corps.