2020, Uncertainty and the Mass Mindset Migration

Brad Cousins Commentary

2020, Uncertainty and the Mass Mindset Migration

This year has seen one of the largest and most widespread shifts of mindset in recent memory — a mass mindset migration.

Sure, in business our mindsets have been challenged by events such as the 2008 financial crisis, falling oil prices, losses of key customers or the dotcom bubble of the nineties. We are conditioned to tackle these by pushing away emotion to cognitively process historical data and economic trends to position ourselves to survive the crisis.

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Emotionally, we are equipped to handle any one of these events when they come, but what about when they come in the twos, threes or fours with a high degree of uncertainty? Unlike economic business cycles, the nature of problems we face today is much more uncertain and cannot be solved simply by looking at economic data and forecasts.

The uncertainty is characterized by known cause and effect with a lack of knowledge around timing and duration. In 2020, we see uncertainty created by the health risks of the pandemic, economic fallout from closing the economy, social unrest, natural disasters and the polarized political environment.

As we struggle to understand the uncertainty of these events, we become overloaded and triggered into an emotional defense of our health, our livelihood and our economic well-being. As uncertainty grinds on, it triggers human instincts of fight, flight or freeze.

Leaders I speak with describe an inability to engage or focus (flight), being overwhelmed yet unproductive (freeze), working longer and harder (fight), being skeptical of everything (freeze) or unable to plan for the future (freeze). Rarely in our relatively cushy modern life have our most basic human instincts been triggered by multiple events in such a way as to shove aside rational cognitive thought.

Psychologist Carol Dweck pioneered research into the growth mindset and its inverse, the fixed mindset. A growth mindset believes intelligence can be developed by using the success of others as inspiration, learning from critical feedback, being undaunted by challenge, embracing failure as a part of learning, and being persistent in the face of adversity.

By using a growth mindset approach, we reformulate the problem, moving away from a judgment of right or wrong to embracing an opportunity to change, learn, grow and innovate. Instead of judging behaviors, a growth mindset seeks to understand the needs driving those behaviors to address the root cause of the problem.

Conversely, a fixed mindset is averse to change and seeks to protect what it knows and what is comfortable. Fixed mindsets are binary and absolute with no middle ground. They avoid change, freedom of thought, growth or innovation, as these trigger our fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism.

Like any tool, a fixed mindset is not all bad. It is a tool we all used at the onset of the pandemic as we sought to protect those we love, our health and our prosperity. The danger lies in dwelling in a fixed mindset and not being mindful of our need to grow.

We can see this evidenced by the nature of health, social and political unrest that provides no room for free thought, debate or growth in these conversations. It is a zero-sum game: You either agree 100% or you are against us, a very fixed mindset.

The key to changing your mindset and that of others is to not provide answers but to ask questions! Rather than determine agreement, seek to understand the underlying needs not being met. Approach situations asking these questions: How can I learn from this situation? How does understanding needs help me create a desired future? What change can I make to create a positive outcome for all?

A great quote by philosopher Eric Hoffer reminds me of the importance of a growth mindset: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Brad Cousins is the CEO of Ingage Human Capital Strategies and a Vistage Chair in Little Rock.