Is mindset all there is? I recently attended a gathering of senior executives seeking to drive change in their organizations and was struck by how much mindset dominated the conversation. It was all about the assumptions and beliefs of the people in their organizations. They wanted to know what kind of evidence and reasoning would help to change these assumptions and beliefs.
The key assumption in the room was that it was all about the mind. They assumed that our assumptions and beliefs shape what we feel and what we do. In this view of the world, emotions are a distraction, or at best a second order effect, and it’s ultimately all about our mind.
Expanding our view
I would suggest that we’re a lot more complicated than that. Our emotions aren’t just derivative of our assumptions and beliefs. Emotions shape our perceptions, assumptions, thoughts and beliefs as well. If you try to shape assumptions and beliefs without paying attention to the emotions that already exist, good luck.
We need to move beyond mindset and expand our horizons to address our heartset: what are the emotions that filter how we perceive the world, shape what we believe and influence how we act? If we’re really excited about something, do we perceive risks in the same way as someone who is deeply fearful? If we were just deeply hurt emotionally by someone, are we likely to trust that person, even if all the objective data suggests we should? If someone showed us compassion at a time of great need, are we more likely help that person, even if it might mean falling behind on our assigned tasks?
Why are we so focused on mindset?
Our preoccupation with mindset is understandable. It’s a natural outgrowth of engineering and managerial beliefs that shaped the scalable efficiency cultures that dominate all our institutions today. In these cultures, the belief is that if you have the right data and perform the right analytics you can deliver whatever is needed. The key is to break down complex issues into their component parts. Keep it simple. Work is broken down into tightly defined tasks that are highly standardized throughout the institution – all you have to do is to read the manual and deliver what’s expected. Everything has to be predictable – that’s the way to increase efficiency.
The focus on mindset has even deeper roots. If we go back to the Enlightenment from the late 1600’s to the early 1800’s, the key message from the great thinkers of that time was to celebrate the power of the mind and all that it could accomplish. It’s not an accident that this era was also known as the “Age of Reason.” The mind is of course a powerful vehicle for driving amazing insights and accomplishments and should be celebrated. But there’s a risk that we reduce everything to the mind. It’s all about ideas and reason. The body is just a distraction or, at best, something to be nurtured because it holds our mind. Life is so much more complicated than that.
Maybe we should dive into heartset to understand some of the reasons mindset has such a strong hold on us. Perhaps the attachment to mindset is at least in part a result of our fear of failure and desire to project strength. We live in a complex world that’s always evolving, often in unanticipated ways. That can be very scary, especially for the masculine archetype.
I’ve written about the masculine and feminine archetype before. In the masculine archetype, the key is to project strength – you understand the situation and you are in control of the situation. The best way to do this is to simplify things and subject them to rigorous analysis. Avoid messy and difficult to understand things like emotions and relationships – focus instead on reason, numbers and transactions. This becomes even more urgent as the world becomes more connected and complex.
The feminine archetype embraces this complexity – it sees each of us as a very complex being driven by heart and mind and shaped by the hearts and minds around us. It understands that deep and lasting relationships can only emerge if we understand that complexity and seek to nurture its growth, while also understanding that we ultimately cannot control that complexity, either in ourselves or in others.
Feel the fear
OK, that’s very complex. How do we move forward and drive change? Well, the answer is certainly going to differ depending on the context, but there’s a generalization that I think is becoming more and more relevant. More and more of us are being driven by fear – that is becoming a dominant emotion, and it is increasingly shaping our mindset. Many factors are fostering this fear, but one key factor is the mounting performance pressure that is a product of the Big Shift transforming our global economy and society.
So, life is complex. I can hear my executive friends saying: OK, but what about change? How do I motivate people to change? Well, I wish I could say that the answer is easy but, as you might expect by now, my answer is that it’s complex.
Embrace our complexity
It starts with the need to move beyond mindset. Numbers and charts alone are not going to drive the change required. Seek to understand the heartset – the fears and hopes that are motivating the actions of those in the organization (and don’t forget those outside the organization that help to shape the heartset of those within the organization). Of course, it’s not just about heartset – we need to explore the complex interplay between mindset and heartset. The real insight will come by exploring the edges between these two domains and understanding the dynamics of how one shapes the other and vice versa. And don’t just look at individuals in isolation, look at them in the context of their networks of relationships and how the mindsets and heartsets of others are shaping their own being.
The challenge is that most of us live in institutional cultures that actively discourage us from expressing fear. Fear is interpreted as a sign of weakness. We’re supposed to be bold and confident. So, for many of us, those feelings of fear are deeply hidden. We need to look deeply to find the fear. And we need to focus on finding ways to help people overcome their growing fear and nurture feelings of hope and excitement.
Nurture the passion
How do we do that? Based on research that we’ve done at the Center for the Edge, one powerful way to help people make this journey is to help them find and embrace their passion. Passion is a very loosely used word, so let me clarify that we’ve discovered a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer – that can be a powerful motivator for learning and change. The challenge is that very few people today have this form of passion with regard to their work – our surveys suggest that only around 12% of workers in the US workforce have this form of passion.
I’ve come to believe that we all have this passion within us, waiting to be discovered and nurtured. Perhaps there’s another dimension to us as humans – perhaps in addition to mindset and heartset, there’s also a spiritset – a unique energy with us that ultimately defines who we are and that calls us to find it and nurture it so that we can achieve more of our potential. But, I digress – I’ll save that exploration for another blog post.
Back to passion. Some of us were fortunate enough to discover this passion within us at an early age, but many of us are still looking for it. Unfortunately, even more of us have given up on the quest, since we’ve fallen prey to the message that this is a fool’s errand, that the key to success is to listen carefully to the boss, and follow directions carefully and reliably. Many of us have also succumbed to growing fear and come to believe that passion is a luxury that we simply can’t afford to pursue – we just need to do what we can to survive for another day.
The bottom line
Our institutions have cultivated a very narrow and misleading view of ourselves as people. As change accelerates on a global scale, we’ll find it very challenging to shift from mounting performance pressure to expanding opportunity if we hold onto that narrow view. Until we recognize and address the heartset that shapes our actions, and its complex interactions with our mindset, we’ll find that fear and stress will increase resistance to change. On the other hand, if we can draw out hope and excitement, we’ll find that we’ll be able to learn and change at an accelerating rate. Our heartset can be both the barrier and the enabler of change – it’s up to us which one will prevail.
If we find a way to connect with the passion within each of us, we’ll quickly find that our dominant emotions become hope and excitement – we’re deeply motivated to achieve an increasing impact in the domain defined by our passion. Fear recedes in the face of the opportunity to make more of a difference in an area that’s meaningful to us. This form of passion also motivates us to connect with others who share our passion in order to achieve even more of an impact – and those connections help to amplify our hope and excitement because we’re receiving constant encouragement from others. We no longer feel isolated, but instead deeply connected in our effort to address exciting opportunities.
Craft opportunity based narratives
So, how do we connect with and draw out this passion? That deserves much more exploration (perhaps even a book), but for the moment let me draw attention to the power of narrative. Those who have been following me know that I make an important distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people use these to mean the same thing. I believe narratives are different from stories on two levels. First, they are open-ended, rather than self-contained – there is no resolution yet, but there is some kind of major opportunity or threat out in the future. It’s not clear whether the opportunity or threat will be realized, but the resolution of the narrative hinges on you – your choices and actions will determine how the narrative resolves. Narratives the way I define them are a powerful call to action.
Narratives have enormous emotional appeal. Throughout human history, millions of people have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of a narrative. Opportunity based narratives are particularly powerful in drawing out and nurturing the passion of the explorer because they frame a large and inspiring opportunity that can help build excitement about the ability to make a difference. These narratives also pull together people who share this passion and the collaboration helps to reinforce and amplify this passion.
As we begin to understand and appreciate the importance of emotions in driving the behavior of people in our institutions, we need to avoid the temptation to try to manipulate emotions to achieve our goals. Manipulation may yield short-term results, but it’s rarely sustainable. In fact, it usually backfires – when people realize they are being manipulated, they lose trust and become even more resistant to the agendas being pursued. If the efforts to shape emotions are not driven by an authentic desire to cultivate a new set of emotions, they will fail. Institutional narratives can be powerful but they need to be authentic and lived on a daily basis by those who craft the narratives.
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