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Mindset change in leaders: Why it matters

An article by Aimee Lace

In everyday language, we acknowledge what we think influences our choices.  We view “winning hearts and minds” as a step towards successful change management, and boast of changing someone’s mind as a sign of true influence. When talking about how to adapt to change and uncertainty, it’s important to consider how our own mindsets can work for us or against us – or be changed all together. This is especially critical for those working in crisis and change management initiatives on the international level, whether it is a transition of power after an election, reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts, or education initiatives seeking to cultivate adaptive and resilient leaders. 

A mindset is, on a personal level, a psychological orientation that impacts how a person makes sense of new information they receive, and shapes the actions they take in response.[1]  Everyone operates with some sort of mindset; the difference is which one. The type of mindset we adopt can have a significant impact not only on how we interpret the world, but also the decisions we make and the way that we lead.

Let’s take the example of John, a leader of a multinational humanitarian response team involved in the aftermath of a natural disaster.  Normal emergency management procedures are not enough as political unrest on the ground spirals the situation into a full-blown crisis.  His team looks to him for leadership, and he is also responsible for coordinating crisis management efforts with several international organizations, numerous NGOs, and a government engulfed in turmoil. With all of this pressing on John, it is critical that he acts in a way that respects the proper protocols but also is dynamic enough to meet the emergent needs of the situation.  We as humans are wired to learn automatic responses, called heuristics, which serve as cognitive shortcuts in our decision-making processes.  The way that we think and process information is influenced by the mindset we have.  Therefore, as the crisis situation evolves quickly, John makes quick decisions not only based on the facts he knows, but also according to his habitual ways of interpreting new information.  Psychology shows the power of framing effects, which refer to the way that we interpret information and the story we tell ourselves to help us make sense of it.  John, whether he is aware of it in the moment or not, is framing the incoming challenges and information in certain ways based on his mindset.  What impact does his mindset really have on his decisions and his team?  What does he stand to gain by changing his mindset?  To investigate this, let’s look out some possible ways John’s scenario could unfold below when he receives new information.

As John is meeting with his team one morning, they receive a message about an important rescue mission, stating that the rescue mission was not successful.  He has a choice, which his mind makes automatically in milliseconds, regarding how he’ll interpret the information.  Will the team be able to bounce back after this failure?  Has this ruined all of the relationships they’ve been trying so hard to build on the ground?  Where should his team go from here?  Is the talent and dedication of his team enough to respond to this challenging development?

Psychologists suggest that there are different ways of making sense of the same objective facts, and these “mindsets” can lead to very different ways of leading and problem-solving in the long-term.[2]  One way is to see the situation and resources available – whether physical resources or human talent or dedication involved - as unchangeable; this way of thinking is called a “fixed” mindset.  If operating with a fixed mindset, John may conclude that because the team has failed this time, that they will continue to struggle in this environment and will not be likely to succeed on similar missions unless something about the team changes.  This mindset has implications for his actions as a leader – he may, for instance, decide the best course of action is to fire the team member in charge of the mission and start afresh by hiring someone new.  This, he hopes, would prevent the failure from happening again.

Another way to view the situation is to acknowledge its gravity but to view it as a chance for the team to also learn from its mistakes, an impetus for the development of new skills, and an experience that could result in an increased ability to be successful in future rescue operations. This is called a “growth” mindset.  If he operates from a growth mindset, John may choose a course of action that emphasizes an after-action review, examining the details of the failed mission for things that could be done differently in future missions, developing changes in the protocols that apply to similar and riskier situations, and bringing his team into this process.  This, he hopes, would help his team not only prevent failure from happening again, but also be successful in even more complex rescue missions in the future.

Though John’s situation and constraints are simplified for the sake of this paper, it is clear that John’s mindset not only influences himself, but also affects his team and, through his decisions and the team’s collective actions, the population they are serving.  Mindsets that individuals hold can be influenced by factors such as national culture, organizational culture and personality, and there’s the possibility of changing them so as to respond to challenges and failures in a more sustainable, resilient, and creative way.

Mindsets impact the broader organization too.  When a team or organization adopts a growth mindset, staff members are 47% more likely to report that their colleagues are trustworthy, 34% more likely to feel a sense of ownership or commitment, and 49% more likely to view the organization as supporting innovation.[3]  Fostering trust, ownership, and innovation are key components of leading in turbulent environments such as crises, and mindset can influence these in an organization.  As seen in the case of John, adopting a different mindset can lead to different trajectories, end results, and potentially foster a greater resiliency in his team so they can approach future problems with greater creativity and adaptivity.

Organizations spend significant resources on capacity-building and training initiatives, but often find themselves with a question: how do they know if a training really changed someone’s mind?  Goals of training are often measured in terms of competencies and knowledge, but for someone to consistently build new habits and take on new behaviors, it requires their mindset about an issue at hand to be altered.  There is a saying which goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” which means that you can give someone the opportunity and skills to do something new, but you can’t make them actually do it.  Changes in action requires motivation and buy-in on the individual level, and that’s where mindset comes in as a critical component.

As you read this article, perhaps you view your own mindset from a “fixed” point of view, seeing it as unlikely – even impossible – to change.  Or, perhaps you view it from a “growth” mentality, considering mindset-change a healthy challenge and learning experience that will enhance you personally and professionally.  Wherever you land, remember that changing your mindset is possible, and making changes there can reap dividends in your work, your team, and your outcomes as a leader as you navigate crises, cultures and change.   

[1] Rucker, D., and Galinsky, A. (2016). Growing beyond growth: why multiple mindsets matter for consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26, 161–164.

[2] Dweck, C. (2014). How Companies Can Profit from A “Growth Mindset”, Harvard Business Review 92 (11), 28-29.

[3] Ibid



Who is Aimee Lace?

Aimee Lace is pursuing her Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where her research focuses on the intersection between psychology and international relations.  Prior to her doctoral studies, Aimee was a consultant for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Geneva, and she continues to work with international organizations and NGOs on projects related to leadership, conflict resolution, and behavioural insights.  She holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and global studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.