Why mindsets matter: The secret to lasting behavior change in moments

Published on: December 2020

Written by: Jerry Connor, David Bernal

How do mindsets impact your behavior in moments?

Your life is built by the moments that you experience daily. As you enter each moment, your brain triggers a mindset that offers a thought, belief, feeling, or attitude. This mindset influences how you will engage in the moment presented. In other words, your behavior is directly influenced by the mindset that you adopt in each moment.

Laptop and coffee on table

Here’s an example. Imagine you are receiving unexpected critical feedback from a respected coworker after giving a presentation to a group of senior leaders. How you react to that feedback will be shaped by the mindset that you adopt in that moment. There are three mindsets that could be activated:

  1. I believe my presentation was perfectly acceptable and no further improvement is needed.
  2. I believe my presentation was poor and I hope no-one noticed.
  3. I believe my presentation was perfectly acceptable yet there is always room for improvement.

Now think about how you would behave during and after your feedback conversation while holding each respective mindset.

  • Which mindset will lead you toward taking action on improving your ability to present?
  • Which mindset will have a greater impact on your overall personal development?
  • Which mindset will have a greater likelihood of driving results that advance your career in the long run?

The answer to these questions is obviously the third mindset. It is consistent with the “growth mindset,” in which you believe that mistakes are opportunities for growth. There are a number of universal mindsets that are powerful for everyone – a growth mindset is one of them.

But, each universal mindset also has its “shadow”or a negative mindset that is triggered in specific moments. In the example provided, it is the fear of not getting it right. This shadow gets triggered if the presentation was particularly important, if you were presenting to an audience you found tricky, or even if you are having a stressful day. To change how you show up in key moments, it’s critical to be self-aware and look out for when you exhibit both constructive mindsets and the shadows that prevent you from exhibiting them.

Humans are not just reactive in terms of the mindset that become active. Choosing the mindset that is activated in each moment is fully under your control. While emotions are powerful and can easily lead to embracing a less productive mindset, you have the executive functioning capability to override your initial primitive emotional reactions.

Everyone has experienced adopting less productive mindsets during stressful moments, but the choice is always under your control. It is just a matter of being able to manage which mindset is elicited even when negative emotions like anxiety or fear are running high.

How can you change your behavior in the moment?

Changing behavior is not easy. It takes a lot of work and people often fail. So much so that many believe humans are incapable of change. People often fail to change because too much focus is placed on behaviors rather than the main inhibitor of successful change – mindsets.

Here’s an example. Suppose you just took a course to develop your reflective listening skills. Reflective listening is a powerful tool that helps people combat their own unconscious biases to increase their awareness of what others are truly communicating.

Using this tool allows you to check your interpretation of what others are saying and give the person a chance to correct your understanding. When used appropriately, reflective listening helps build both trust and empathy by making a person truly feel heard.

After completing this skill-building course, you are empowered to use this new skill on the job to build better relations and work more effectively with your coworkers.

Two weeks after you completed the reflective listening course, a team member, Taj approaches you with some big personal news that will impact his ability to show up for work for an undetermined amount of time.

Taj is currently leading an important initiative that is very visible in the eyes of senior leaders. The news is stressful for you because losing Taj at this stage of the project will very disruptive and possibly derail the success of the project.

How do you react when Taj is sharing the news? The perfect opportunity has arisen to use your new reflective listening skills, but will you? How you react depends on your mindset. There are two competing mindsets that could be elicited in this moment:

  1. At Taj’s level, you expect him to be able to juggle the personal and professional. You expect him to find a way to deliver his commitments regardless of what is happening outside of work.
  2. Taj may well need support in this difficult time. It is important to me to find the best way to help him regardless of current work demands.

If you have the first mindset when you enter the conversation with Taj, there is a low likelihood that you are going to engage in reflective listening due to your belief that a person must honor their work commitments first and foremost. Embracing this belief will lead you to set the precedent that Taj must figure out some way to fulfill his obligation.

Your ability to truly show your new reflective listening skill is blocked when you have the first mindset. It’s not because you don’t have the skill to demonstrate reflective listening behaviors, it’s because your mindset leads you down a path that shows a different set of behaviors.

Conversely, entering into the conversation with the second mindset primes you to show empathy towards Taj, which is the basis of reflective listening. The congruity between your mindset and behavior in this instance set you up to use your new skill without experiencing any internal discord.

This lack of dissonance between the mindset and behavior is important. When you enter a situation with a mindset to “experience and understand Taj’s world,” listening is natural. But sometimes these moments are triggers. For example, you may feel differently if Taj has a history of taking time off for personal reasons or you feel personal pressure to succeed on the project. In these situations, you are unlikely to have the mindset, “experience and understand others’ worlds” and may enter the situation expecting Taj to deliver, as in the first mindset.

What is holding people back from changing their behavior in moments?

True behavior change will not happen without making the proper mindset shifts. People often assume that skill development equals behavior change, meaning a person will demonstrate new behaviors if they develop a new skill. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Just because a person develops a new skill doesn’t mean they will demonstrate it if there isn’t harmony between their new behaviors and mindset in each situation they experience.

Yet it does take more than one instance of showing new behaviors in order to signify true change. Demonstrating the set of new behaviors in a single instance is not a case for change. It takes repetition for a person to build new habits to allow them to move away from instinctively using old behavioral patterns in similar moments.

Most individual development plans or programs being delivered in organizations today are primarily centered around skill-building. While the focus around skill development does teach people how to perform new behaviors, it doesn’t target the mindset shifts necessary to actually leverage those skills when the relevant moment appears.

Without a shift in mindset, you will continue to perform the behaviors aligned with your current mindset and never use your new skill even if you know how to perform it. A mindset shift needs to happen first to enable you to show your new set of behaviors.