A few people have asked me recently about the name of my business.
What is mindset coaching, they ask, and how is it different from executive coaching or life coaching?
The short answer is that mindset coaching is not a distinct category of coaching. I’m an executive coach, and Mindset Coaching—the name of my business—simply reflects my belief in the centrality of mindset in creating and sustaining behavioral change.
The longer answer requires a bit of elaboration. But before I explain mindset further, let me give you a simple example of the power of mindset.
I used to value efficiency in movement. At home, if there were five things that needed to be brought upstairs, I preferred to collect them all before heading up. At the mall, if I saw two parking spots, I would choose the one closest to the entrance.
When I got a Fitbit a couple of years ago, I noticed a shift in my mindset.
If I forgot to bring a clean load of laundry upstairs with me when I went up? Great—that extra trip upstairs got me closer to my goal of 10,000 steps a day. And now I sometimes purposefully pick a more distant parking spot on trips to the mall.
The difference in my mindset has led to a difference in my habits, which has led to a difference in my overall health.
Or consider this example:
Stress is bad for your health, right? Well, yes and no. It certainly can be, but Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal found that the way we think about stress may be just as important as the amount we experience.
For example, if we tell ourselves that stress is harmful, that it may overwhelm us, and that we’re under more stress than others are, we’re much more likely to suffer negative health outcomes than if we didn’t hold those beliefs.
In other words, your stress mindset mediates the relationship between difficult life events and your health. If you tell yourself that you have the physical and emotional resources to cope effectively with stress, and that you can learn and grow from it, you’re much more likely to make it through unscathed.
The way you think about something changes the way you react to it, and those reactions in turn produce better outcomes.
The word mindset has worked its way into common parlance—at least among leadership practitioners—since Carol Dweck’s 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In that book, Dweck differentiated between a fixed mindset, in which people believe that intelligence and talent are simply fixed traits, and a growth mindset, in which people believe that such capabilities can be developed through hard work and dedication.
Fixed and growth are only two labels for mindsets, of course, and I’d like to consider the concept more broadly. Here are two of my favorite definitions of mindset.
This one is from Vocabulary.com:
“A habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how you
will interpret and respond to situations.”
Here’s another, this one by Dennis Stauffer, author of the Innovator’s Mindset:
“Your mindset is like the operating system on a computer. It functions in the background largely unnoticed. Yet how it is designed and how well it performs impacts everything that computer does.
And so it is with people. We each have a personal operating system—your personal paradigm—but for most of us it is largely subconscious.”
Notice that in both of these definitions, mindset is about what you believe, how you frame events, what you tell yourself about the world.
Mindset is distinct from what psychologists consider personality characteristics—traits such as extroversion, interpersonal warmth, openness to change, and conscientiousness—which research suggests don’t change much over the course of an individual’s lifetime.
If you think about mindset as the way in which we frame things (e.g., stress is a learning opportunity), what we tell ourselves about situations (e.g., walking farther is good for my health), what we choose to believe (e.g., I have all the resources I need to weather adversity), it’s clear that we can intentionally adopt new mindsets.
We can’t change our innate characteristics, but we can change how we look at the world, which in turn changes our behavioral responses, which in turn leads to different outcomes.
And that’s why mindset plays such an important role in the coaching work I do.
In working with my clients, I attempt to identify the mindsets with which they currently operate and then invite them to explore whether those mindsets are helping or hurting them.
One of my clients reported feeling frustrated with the frequency of unscheduled calls and drop-ins by his direct reports. He felt these instances to be impositions on his time, and that they were distracting him from his important tasks of generating reports for his superiors, meeting with his peers to get alignment on cross-functional projects, preparing materials for Board meetings, etc.
As we explored the beliefs underlying his frustration, we discovered that my client was looking at his individual responsibilities—and not at leading his team—as his primary “work,” and this impacted how he responded to his direct reports’ ad hoc requests for input, advice, etc.
When he recognized this mindset, he was able to shift it. Once he adopted a coaching mindset, he was then able to prioritize his time with his direct reports over most all of his other responsibilities. He came to believe that as a leader, he would be only as successful as his team was, and that if he didn’t offer the support his team members needed, they would all fail.
Sometimes, all it takes to shift a mindset is a simple and straightforward invitation to look at something differently.
Another of my clients, for example, was able to increase her and her team’s productivity after being introduced to the concept of focusing on outcomes rather than activity. That was it! By asking herself—and asking her team members—to prioritize their work according to its impact rather than difficulty, visibility, or sheer effort—all of them were able to make more intentional and effective choices about how to distribute their finite time and energy. The result? They had their best year ever.
By considering all aspects of an individual’s life, we can often find connections between personal and professional behavior, and in so doing, create powerful mindset shifts.
A particularly kind client of mine told me that he had traditionally avoided difficult conversations with his direct reports because they made him uncomfortable. He clearly saw the downsides of such avoidance, but he felt fairly pessimistic about his ability to change his behavior.
When I asked him how he responded to his young children when they made bad choices, he told me that he talked directly and honestly with them almost 100% of the time. I asked how comfortable he felt in doing that; he acknowledged that while he didn’t enjoy it, he knew they needed that feedback in order to make better choices in the future.
He cared so deeply about his children’s growth and development that he felt they deserved his candor. Hearing himself say that, my client was able to recognize that as a leader, he owed the same consideration to his direct reports. If he wasn’t going to be honest with them, who was?
Now my client asks himself, when tempted to let a direct report’s “bad” behavior slide, whether he would react differently if it was his child. Almost always, the answer is yes, and so he gathers up the courage to have the conversation. He has also accepted the fact that he doesn’t necessarily need to feel comfortable initiating tough conversations; he just needs to do it.
In each case, recognizing the initial mindset, then deciding very purposefully to make a shift, led my clients to bring a new lens to the situation, to interpret it differently, and to choose a different behavioral response.
And yet, because human beings are nuanced, there’s not always a simple, linear relationship between mindset and outcomes. Context matters.
For example, a mindset of gratitude, in which you purposefully identify, acknowledge, and appreciate those things in your life for which you are thankful, tends to lead to increased well-being. This is in contrast to a mindset of scarcity or resentment, in which you focus on the things in your life that are lacking, or which you perceive others to be withholding from you. We all experience a mix of good and bad in our lives, and what we choose to focus on can have a profound impact on our levels of happiness, the quality of our relationships with others, and our health.
And so it was of tremendous interest to me when I noticed not too long ago that several of the female executives I have coached over the years have encountered a very specific type of situation in which they felt hampered by over-playing a mindset of gratitude.
What do I mean by that? Here’s what happened. In each case, my client was given a promotion—a new title, a bigger team, and more responsibility. When I asked about how significant the increase in comp would be, each woman acknowledged that comp hadn’t been mentioned at all, or that there had been an offhand comment about taking a look at comp next year, and in each case, she had just let it go.
That’s right; she just let it go. Each woman felt so grateful for the promotion that she didn’t feel comfortable asking for—or even about—an associated adjustment to her compensation.
I don’t do a lot of advocating in my coaching, so it wouldn’t have been my style to try to convince any of these clients to raise the subject with her superiors, but in each case, I invited her to look closely at how she was choosing to respond to the situation, to explore the underlying beliefs driving those choices, and to consider whether those choices were serving her well or not.
In each case, the conversation itself led to a shift in mindset; at the same time she continued to feel grateful for the promotion opportunity, each client was also able to recognize and honor the efforts and achievements that had led to the promotion, and to attach greater value to her work. Sometimes this led to a decision to tackle the question of compensation head on, and sometimes the effect was more subtle, but in each case, looking at the underlying mindset with clarity and objectivity led to a more conscious and informed decision about how to move forward.
This is why good coaching doesn’t depend on the application of simple “truisms,” such as “Always be grateful.” It’s true that practicing a mindset of gratitude has been shown to have significant benefits, but it’s important to examine how and when and with what impact any given mindset is used. Working with my clients to unearth, to explore, and—if beneficial—to shift their mindsets is both a fascinating intellectual challenge and a source of tremendous emotional satisfaction.
One final note: some of you might also know that I have co-authored two psychological assessments, each of which has “mindset” in the title. The Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) was developed in partnership with Mark Davis, Pam Mayer, and the Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute, and the Coaching Mindset Index® (CMI) was developed in partnership with Mark Davis and AIIR Consulting. Mindset is so much a part of my consciousness that even my children like to remind me, usually sarcastically, that “it’s all about the mindset, Mom!”
I’m currently toying with the idea of creating an assessment of multiple mindsets. I think it would be pretty cool to complete a single questionnaire and then to receive a report that showed you which mindsets you operate with, and which ones you feel are benefiting versus hampering you. If you have any thoughts about particular features that would make this kind of assessment helpful to you, I’d love to hear them. And if you want to learn more about mindset coaching, please also feel free to reach out.
I sincerely wish each of you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019!