The Mindset of Leaders

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 7th February 2018

The term ‘mindset’ is one that is frequently used in conversations, training and articles about leadership and management. But is there an accepted definition, and how much does it matter to the leader in the workplace? Let’s look for some clues.

The Oxford Dictionary defines this term as ‘The established set of attitudes held by someone’, whereas Merriam-Webster goes with ‘a mental attitude or inclination’ and ‘a fixed state of mind’. All of these definitions are helpful in grasping the essential issue of mindset for a leader. In this article, we’ll explore typical leader mindsets and the challenging issue of confirmation bias.

The Mindset of Leaders

Typical leader mindsets

A lot of this is rooted in the leader’s beliefs and attitudes to their role and responsibilities. Many see themselves as the person expected to deliver specific results or outcomes. They may also see themselves as the ‘head’ of a certain team, functional area or unit. These beliefs can have a big impact on mindset and thus provide a ‘filter’ through which all information, opinions, data or other perceptions are understood.

For example: If a leader believes that their primary purpose is to ensure that a specific task is completed to a defined standard, then any variance from their standard approach is likely to appear to be ‘wrong’ and may lead them to respond negatively to any individual or team that is deviating from the preferred path. They may well see it as ‘incorrect’ and as a problem that must be acted upon quickly. It will almost certainly affect the language they use, their leadership style, their behaviour and their emotional reaction to the individuals concerned. They may well see their responsibility to be to return things to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. This often sits with a ‘Theory X’ view of their role and teams.

If, on the other hand, they see themselves as primarily being there to support their team and encourage engagement and innovation, their response to such a deviation from the norm is likely to be very different and much more positive. They may see it as evidence that people feel empowered, are prepared to use their initiative and are seeking to find better ways of achieving goals. This often sits with more of a ‘Theory Y’ view of their role and teams.

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The pros and cons of mindset

As previous articles have discussed, it isn’t a case that Theory Y is good, and Theory X is bad. It’s about making good choices about leadership style in any given context. Both have consequences. Theory Y carries greater risk than Theory X of missing deadlines or failing to deliver expected outcomes. However, it increases the prospect of engaging people, generating ideas and making a breakthrough in performance. The effective leader needs to make the right choice. Mindset is likely to influence that choice, so a leader needs to be aware of their own mindset when deciding and ensure they are being sufficiently objective in their decisions. That brings us to the issue of ‘confirmation bias’: the concept that we all hold prejudices and points of view – mindsets – that lead us to interpret information and situations subjectively and may lead us to respond to that information uncritically. For example, if we are required to act in a way that we find uncomfortable or unfamiliar and we don’t achieve the outcome we desire, we may interpret that as absolute proof that our prejudice was correct. Often, we allow confirmation bias to prevent us from gathering further evidence or reflecting more deeply on something, because we tell ourselves that we already ‘know the truth’. For example, a leader who dislikes making presentations may tell themselves, after making a presentation which they – or others – deemed unsuccessful, that this proves that they are a terrible presenter, or that presentations are a waste of time. The truth is probably that this one didn’t go well for a specific reason and that they are perfectly capable of delivering a better one next time if they reflect and make some adjustments.

Where confirmation bias can really have a negative impact on a leader is when it confirms a fixed and unhelpful mindset or stereotypical and unchallenged negative assumption. A Theory X leader may see their team having a discussion in the office as proof that they are lazy or disaffected, when they may have been discussing ideas for improving a piece of work. A Theory Y leader may see a team working silently as proof that the team isn’t bonding or has a lack of rapport, when they are engaged in work that requires intense concentration.

The shorthand for this concept might be ‘jumping to conclusions’; leaders need to challenge themselves and be very aware of their mindsets and prejudices to be sure that they are being as objective – and as positive – as their team and organisation need them to be. Why not read ‘10 Bad Habits of Leaders in the Workplace‘ next?

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