Personal & Leadership Development: Why Focus on Mindsets and Not Behaviors?

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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When it comes to improving ourselves, we love lists. LOVE lists.

What is there to not like about lists? They are easy to digest. They get straight to the point. They do the thinking for us, and tell us what to do.

That is why it seems like every online personal development or leadership article focuses on a list of things to do, such as the “3 steps,” “4 behaviors,”, and “6 actions.”

But, the reality is that when it comes to improving ourselves, we love lists for the very reason why we shouldn’t like them. Becoming better isn’t about digesting something easily, getting straight to the point, or mindlessly engaging in specific actions. Becoming better is about absorbing and internalizing.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some value in lists of behavior or actions. Potentially, they can help us quickly see areas where we can improve (if we are self-aware enough to see it).

Rather than focusing on lists that tell us how we should act or behave, a much better approach when improving ourselves and our leadership is to focus on our mindsets.

I am going to answer why that is, with a “list” of three reasons.

First, focusing on lists of actions and behaviors prevents us from possessing an outward mindset.

When we have an outward mindset, we see people as people, and we value them as such. This is different than having an inward mindset, where we see ourselves (and our feelings, emotions, and needs) as being more important than others, causing us to see others as objects, rather than as people.

If you would like a deeper treatise on these mindsets, see this prior blog post: Unlocking Greater Success by Developing an Outward Mindset.

Why should we have an outward mindset? Let me give you three answers out of many. First, we want to be seen as people. Second, we respect and want to follow those who see us as people and care about our feelings, emotions, and needs. Third, based upon a recent research project, I found that out of the four mindsets that I generally focus on (growth, open, promotion, and outward), leader outward mindsets consistently had the strongest effect on the workplace climate. Here is a figure demonstrating the impact leader outward mindsets (measured from the perspective of the follower) had on various ways to assess workplace climate:

Why does focusing on lists prevent us from possessing an outward mindset? When we are focused on performing certain actions and behaviors (e.g., making a goal of connecting with every employee every day), who are we actually focused on? Ourselves. And, when we are focused on ourselves, what mindset do we tend to have? Inward.

The reality is that when we are focused on doing something better, we tend to care more about us doing what we want to do better, and not on those we are trying to more positively impact. Thus, a focus on lists to do better, typically puts ourselves in an inward rather than outward mindset.

It is important to note that we can do anything with an inward or outward mindset including developing ourselves. But our natural tendency when focusing on improving our behaviors and actions is to focus on ourselves, cross it off our list, and gain a sense of accomplishment.

Second, the improvement of ourselves rarely occurs on the level of our behaviors.

If we want to improve ourselves, we usually need to develop ourselves at the level below our behaviors (i.e., the cause or drivers of our behaviors).

Becoming a better person and a better leader does not just mean changing how we act, it means changing how we think, even changing our hearts. This is because it is largely our thinking and our hearts that drive our behaviors.

One of the problems that we have is that we tend to think that our thinking is the best way to think. I see this all the time with dysfunctional leaders. They can easily justify all of their actions. But, just because they can justify their actions, does not mean that they are good actions with long-term positive benefits.

Thus, if we want to improve ourselves, we have got to be open to changing more than just our behaviors. We have got to be open to changing our thinking and hearts (i.e., mindsets).

Third, a focus on behaviors can lead us astray.

We can easily come up with a list of behaviors that we should probably avoid as a leader. For example, it seems reasonable to suggest that a leader shouldn’t yell or say “I hate you.” At the surface, these types of behaviors seem incompatible with good leadership. But, it seems appropriate to yell when we are excited or to say “I hate you” in a friendly or joking manner when a subordinate calls you out for not sticking to your diet.

In All

It has been estimated that 15 percent of leaders who get training actually establish permanent change. While there are a variety of reasons for the ineffectiveness of such trainings, I believe a primary reason is because most leadership trainings focus on behaviors, not on what drives behaviors: mindsets.

In all, if you want to become better, or if you want the leaders and managers of your organization to become better, it is going to be much more effective for you to focus on mindsets rather than on behaviors.

In fact, I would love to help you with such trainings. If you are interested, either send me an email, or provide your contact information by clicking on the button below:

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