Please, check recent posts and comments on LinkedIn and Twitter about organizational change and organizational development. Many change experts coin the term ‘Mindset‘. They tell us the mindset has to change from ‘mindset A’ to ‘mindset B’. The term ‘mindset’, which is a construct, is freely combined with other terms, like ‘Agile mindset’, ‘professional mindset’ and so on.

I do believe that just stating that “the mindset has to change from A to B” is not helpful enough. You need to do a bit more than that.

What is a mindset?

Mindset is a construct, a theoretical variable created in an attempt to explain something. Basically, mindsets are beliefs. According to psychologist Carol Dweck people can have one of two mindsets: a fixed-mindset, or a growth-mindset. People that have fixed-mindsets are said to believe their qualities and talents are fixed at some level and can not develop. People with growth-mindsets on the other hand, believe that their qualities and talents can develop. It requires effort and perseverance, but eventually their qualities and talents have developed. Note that in the explanation of what a mindset is, new constructs are introduced, such as ‘qualities‘ and ‘talents‘. To fully understand the definition of ‘mindset‘ we also must define and understand ‘qualities‘ and ‘talents‘. Question: if a mindset is either growth or fixed, then why do we have all these other types, like agile, professional, customer-focussed, or cost-aware mindsets?

Beliefs – mindset(s) – are the result of your learning history. You are most likely not born with a set of beliefs, but we can’t tell for sure. Beliefs develop during your unique journey we call life. Your beliefs are formed, shaped and changed by your personal experiences which take place in the context of your life. Beliefs develop during your life as you interact with other people, objects, animals and various environments. Many variables and experiences add to that learning history: interaction with parents, siblings, teachers, friends, family. Also school, sports, internet, holidays, travels, pictures, movies and so on all add to the mix. The list of variables is virtually endless.

To be able to personally give meaning to your experiences and form, shape and change beliefs – mindset(s) – you need some language. Without language you can not communicate your wants and needs. A language can be spoken, but can also have other shapes, such as gestures and images.

A straight-forward way to come to believe something is when a behavior starts reliably producing predictable, desired results. That’s when we start to believe: it works this way (for me). An interesting question for me is whether beliefs govern our behaviors, or behaviors govern our beliefs.

Constructs, some observations

Mindset is a construct. When using constructs in an attempt to explain something we need to be aware of a few characteristics of constructs.
First: to understand and explain a construct it is common to use more underlying constructs. This easily leads to ambiguity in communications, understanding and explanations. In this case: mindset is defined by referring to qualities and talents in either a fixed or variable state or level. We still don’t really know what that means.
Second: a construct is not observable. The mindset a person has is not observable. If it were, we could make an image of one, or maybe pick one up from a desk. But, we have to assume everybody has at least one mindset, or else the entire discussion about changing mindsets becomes irrelevant.

Third: because constructs are not observable, it becomes tricky, if not impossible, to measure them objectively. This hurdle usually is circumvented by using surveys and questionnaires. People answer questions and the answers are compared to a set of pre-defined parameters. Eventually we assign a label to the picture that the answers present. In this case: growth-mindset, or fixed-mindset. Note that we can never know for sure if the subject has answered all questions truthfully. We have to assume that this person has done that. Another way of determining one’s mindset is to observe verbal and non-verbal behaviors and label those. Note that a set of observable behaviors emitted in a specific context are labelled by an observer. This introduces the risk of bias and opinion-forming.
My final observation about constructs would be that they enable air-tight reasoning: “with the right mindset and the right culture we will be more agile-with-a-small-a”. No arguments there. The easy-to-create air-tight reasoning IMHO contributes to the popularity of constructs in general.

Mindset challenge

Because mindsets are beliefs that reside somewhere in someone’s mind, we can not see one nor know for sure what a person’s mindset is by just looking at that person’s face . What we can do is observe what happens when that person starts emitting verbal and non-verbal behaviors. Then based on our (personal) definition and understanding of mindset, we will label the observed behaviors and call that “mindset X’. IMHO we form an opinion and conclude which mindset the person has. This is ambiguous. If we would have five observers that label the emitted behaviors of an individual we might end up with five different opinions and mindsets. Who’s correct and why?

To by-pass, or prevent this ambiguity, I’d like to propose a slightly different approach. You can start with stating that the organization needs a change in mindset, from A to B. Probably all involved will agree. Then you must define which observable behaviors demonstrate “mindset A”, and which observable behaviors demonstrate “mindset B”. So people understand which behaviors they should emit more often to demonstrate the new mindset. Many trainings and workshops I delivered in the last few years prove that identifying observable behaviors is more difficult as it seems.

Observable behaviors versus non-behaviors

If we ask any group of people what behaviors they would like to see to demonstrate a specific mindset we usually get answers like: “proactive”, “open”, “transparent”, “ownership” and “responsibility”. Unfortunately, these are not observable behaviors. These words describe so called “non-behaviors”. You can tell its a non-behavior, because none of these “behaviors” can be demonstrated and then copied. I refer to this as “The Show Me Test“. Demonstrate what you mean by “transparent” and I will do exactly what you did, so we both are behaving in a “transparent” way. When you try this, you will probably discover there are many, many ways to be transparent. The risks of opinion-forming, bias, ambiguity and labelling show-up again. So, working with non-behaviors is not helpful enough. People still might struggle understanding what the “desired behaviors” are.

Shift from mindset to results

Defining desired behaviors, a procedure called “pinpointing”, is required to be able to demonstrably move from “mindset A to mindset B”. Defining desired behavior is tricky. The easiest way to define desired behaviors is by linking them to desired results. These desired results are required by the organization and enable them to deliver value to their customers. To produce exactly these results you must emit specific behavior.

One thing is certain: people emit observable verbal and non-verbal behavior to produce some result. This mechanism applies to both desired and undersired behaviors. Ask any person: “why are you doing what you are doing?” The answer usually starts with something like: “because I want… “, or “because I want/wish to prevent/stop/escape from…”. Try it for yourself. Ask yourself: “why am I doing this?”. The answer lies in the effect of your behavior. Because of your behavior you get something, experience something, you feel happy, or feel relieved because you avoided something unpleasant. Your behavior makes you feel good, it fixes a problem, it answers a question, it satisfies your curiosity. The list of possible answers is endless. Behaviors produce results for performers. A performer is somebody who emits a behavior. Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes not so much. The results of your behaviors produce positive or negative emotions. Also, if a behavior consistently produces desired results the probability we emit this behavior more often increases. Similarly, if behaviors consistently produce undesired results we probably stop doing that.

People are trained, by experience, which behavior to emit to get what they want, need, or wish to stop/avoid/escape. Every person has unique desires, needs, wants, fears and demons. People have built their unique behavioral repertoire based on their unique learning history. That learning history also produces a set of firm and some maybe less-firm beliefs. We believe that certain behaviors “will never work here”; meaning they will never produce desired results for the performer. On the other hand, some behaviors “have always worked here”, meaning these have produced desired results for the performer in the past.

Mindset – behaviors – desired results

Because behaviors are emitted to produce some expected result, it is imperative for leaders in the organization to do their homework, so they can change mindsets. Their homework is: define vision, mission, goals, objectives and strategy first. In that process they have to define concrete desired business results. The next step is to let the professionals think about the best way to produce these desired results. In other words: let them come up with the desired behaviors, needed to produce the results the organization needs. This way, instead of pushing desired behaviors down their throat, you start pulling desired behaviors out of the capable minds of trained professionals. Leaders have to set some boundaries to determine if proposed behaviors are acceptable and desirable given the – ever changing – context in which the organization operates.

Next, leaders must do everything in their power to enable the professionals to do their job. This is also referred to as ‘empowerment‘. For many leaders empowerment means a ‘shift in mindset‘ too. This shift can be demonstrated by emitting ‘desireable leadership behaviors‘. Leaders do not have to tell people what to do and how to do it. They should enable people to maximize performance by creating an environment that offers safety, challenges, recognition for desired performance. This environment also includes clear purpose, objectives and pinpoited desired performance. Desired performance is defined as: ‘producing the desired results by emitting desired behaviors‘. Without pinpointing desired results first, there is no anchor for desired behaviors. Once the desired results are produced, the people who delivered need to experience positive social consequences contingent on their performance. If people are experiencing positive consequences from their leaders and peers, they start believing they work in an environment that brings out the best in them. Then they create the new, desired mindsets for themselves!

My conclusion:

To positively change the mindset of any person, that person needs an environment that mostly and continuously provides positive experiences contingent on desired peformance. Such an environment strengthens desired behaviors. It builds the right mindset in in co-creation: leaders, professionals together.