The Foundation of Most Executives’ Struggles – Part 1

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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Over the last couple of years, I have been fortunate to work with a number of different executive teams.

Over a series of five articles (this being the first), I am going to identify and describe the four primary struggles of executives that I have observed.

In this article, I want to explore what I believe to be the foundation of all four things that executives struggle with.

Why Executives Struggle to Begin With

Something that is true across all executives I have worked with is: They are all trying their best. But, they are commonly not as effective as they need to be and can be.

Why aren’t they more effective? It is because they struggle answering two questions:

  • What do I see?
  • More deeply: Why and how do I see what I see?

Let me give you an example of why asking and answering these questions are so important using an image you have probably seen before.

The Dress

When you look at the image below, what is the color of the dress?

controversial dress

Now, given what you see, if given the option, which pair of shoes would you purchase? A or B?

gold and blue heels

Debriefing “The Dress”

Roughly half of all people see a black/blue dress, and the other half see a white/gold dress.

Depending upon what you see, this will lead you to either select a pair of blue shoes or gold shoes.

But, the dress is actually white/gold. So, if you saw black/blue and then selected the blue shoes, you would have been doing what made sense to you, but was completely inappropriate.

All executives see things (i.e., a dress with color). But few know what they are prone to see and then why and how they see what they see.

Research has found the reason why some people see black/blue and others white/gold, and that reason boils down to how your brain automatically and nonconsciously interprets the lighting in the picture.

If your brain interprets the lighting to be “indoor lighting,” your mind will remove the color ‘yellow’ from your perspective, leaving you with a black/blue dress.

If your brain interprets the lighting to be “outdoor lighting,” your mind will remove the color ‘blue’ from your perspective, leaving you with a white/gold dress.

Knowing this, research has also found that people who have spent a higher portion of their time operating indoors tend to see the black/blue dress, and people who have spent a higher portion of their time operating outdoors tend to see the white/gold dress.

The Value of Knowing What You See + Why and How You See What You See

When we do not know what we are prone to see, we rush around addressing what we do see, which may not be 100% accurate. But, when we get clear on what we are prone to see, we open the door to make adjustments to see more accurately.

But, in order to make those adjustments, we actually need to explore why and how we see what we see.

In short, if we want to operate at our highest level and have the greatest positive impact possible, we need to explore not just what we are prone to see, but also why and how we see what we see.

The Power of Understanding Our Mindsets

This is why understanding mindsets is so critical to our effectiveness.

There are four sets of mindsets:

Mindset Continuums

The quality of your mindsets resides somewhere along each of these continuums.

My experience working with executive teams is that the mindset that they struggle with the most is a fixed mindset.

When executives have a fixed mindset, they see failure as something to avoid and become focused on always looking good. This causes them to hold too tightly to what has worked in the past and unwilling to embrace new approaches that might work better in the future.

This is usually going on at a nonconscious level, just like the imperceptible shift our mind makes regarding the lighting in the picture.

When executives have a growth mindset, they see failure as ok. This causes them to be more inclined to approach learning zone challenges, let go of what has worked in the past, and embrace new approaches that might work better in the future.

The Key to Elevating One’s Mindsets

It is deeply insightful to learn what we are prone to see, but if we want to improve our mindsets, it is vital that we understand why and how we see what we see.

Stated differently, if we have a fixed mindset, it is good to know that we have a fixed mindset. Awareness is always the first step to elevating one’s mindsets.

But, actually moving the needle on our fixed mindset requires knowing why and how we came to possess a fixed mindset.

What I have learned studying fixed mindsets and helping thousands develop more of a growth mindset is that fear, shame, and ultimately trauma are at the root of fixed mindsets. When we have a fear of looking bad, somewhere below the surface is a shame-related insecurity that is almost surely rooted in past trauma. Something happened in our past to inform us that if we fail we are not worthy. To cover this up, we adopt a fixed mindset.

rorschach ink blot

Questions For You

How interested and willing are you in exploring what you are prone to see?

How interested and willing are you in exploring the why and how of what you see?

The degree to which you are interested and willing to do these things is the degree to which you will transform in your effectiveness and positive influence as a leader.

The Root of Most Executive Struggles

As mentioned, over the next four articles, I will be identifying and exploring the four most common struggles that executives face.

All of these struggles are rooted in this phenomenon I have described: They are blissfully unaware of not only what they are prone to see (i.e., what their mindsets are), but even more deeply, of why and how they see what they see (i.e., why they have the mindsets they have).

They are commonly doing what they think is best (buying the blue shoes because they see a black/blue dress), even though the dress is actually white/gold.

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