The term mindset, a collection of beliefs and/or attitudes, has evolved to mean any fixed group of ideas that has come to govern behaviour of an individual or a group. The term conveys cognitivist assumptions that attitudes and beliefs are confined inside an individual’s head, more, that a mindset can be changed with a particular programme of interventions of a behavioural kind. We can change our own mindset, or as managers in an organisational context, we can change the mindsets of those for whom we are responsible from one coherent, though undesirable, attitude to another. It is a taken for granted assumption that any change programme in a contemporary organisation requires a change in mindset in staff before it is realisable. Changing mindsets is often linked loosely to organisational culture change (future post).
The work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford University cognitive psychologist is broadly cited for her work on mindset. She suggested that there is a fixed mindset, where there is an assumption that abilities and traits are innate, and a growth mindset, which is the belief that whatever talents we are born with, these can be cultivated and improved. Employers, parents, teachers, are encouraged to imbue a growth mindset in order to foster greater achievement. With a growth mindset an individual accepts setbacks, learns to reflect, and understands that effort is needed in order to attain ‘mastery’. Methods employed to instil this include setting achievable micro-goals, praising effort over results, overcoming negative ‘self-talk’, and, tautologously, encouraging growth mindset thinking. Here mindset is presented as a binary, fixed vs growth, but more broadly the term is used whenever some kind of change is required which is thought to need a commensurate change in attitude.
As far as it goes, a programme of encouraging people to consider that they are capable of thinking differently is to be welcomed. There are a variety of schemes in the UK aimed at changing the status quo, improving BAME student achievement in universities for example, which assist both students and teachers to raise expectations about the flourishing of black and ethnic minority students in higher education institutions. So far so laudable. However, there are a number of difficulties with the term which benefit from exploring.
Prescriptions for changing mindset involve some social processes, such as surrounding yourself with positive or creative people, for example, or having someone set incremental goals for you. Changing mindset often involves being praised and may be broadly but vaguely linked to a change in organisational culture. However, largely in the organisational context the responsibility rests with the individual to identify and change their own mindset: you are expected to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps having first identified that you are wearing boots. The change is a binary one from X mindset to Y mindset. Additionally, we gain no insight into how the mindset might have arisen in the first place. It seems just to be there, a priori.
Just compare the term with Ludwig Fleck’s idea of a thought collective, for example, which is trying to describe the same phenomenon, a set of beliefs or attitudes about the world. A thought collective, as the phrase implies, arises and is sustained in a group: people come to have a set of beliefs or attitudes because they are born into, or join, a particular group where these ideas are current and have legitimacy. Maintaining membership of the group involves getting with the programme, and policing deviations from it: it reflects a set of power relations and processes of inclusion and exclusion. This strong group process occurs even in groups of scientists where one might expect scientific method to trump it. For Fleck, and for all sociologists who take a highly social view of human formation, we come to have a particular view of the world because of the groups we belong to. And because we belong to different groups it is quite likely that we espouse mutually contradictory beliefs, whether we are conscious of this or not. Our ‘mindset’ may consist of fragments.
A second difficulty is the assumption that people are able accurately to cognise themselves, realise that they have a particular mindset, and then systematically set about changing it, or can have it changed by others. The experience of running a reflective doctoral programme which is aimed at encouraging managers and consultants to become reflexive, to notice how they are thinking about the world so that this noticing may offer the possibility of thinking differently, makes me think that this is by no means an easy process. We are all ideological and think the world is as we think it is. In fact, we often have huge investment in keeping our understandings of the world stable: we are our habits and attitudes to the extent that a change in understanding is also a change in identity, towards which we might be resistant. Even students who come on the programme claiming that being challenged about the way they understand the world is exactly what they are looking for, may then stubbornly resist examining their own thinking. This resistance is not necessarily a bad thing: resistance to change is also a form of resilience and is something to work with.
Two social processes in particular may help with this shaking of a relatively fixed identity, although neither of them is a tool or technique to be applied, and neither of them guarantees a change in ‘mindset’. The first is the radical encounter with oneself in a group. The founder of the group analytic tradition, Foulkes, claims that the group is a place where one is faced with a hall of mirrors. Having one’s opinions, habits, actions reflected back as others experience them may be highly discomfiting but can also be revelatory. We may become partially visible to ourselves through others.
The second is that this reflecting back may provoke feelings of shame, the experience of vulnerability, exposure and anticipation of possible exclusion from the group. The most profound learning experiences can often occur when our membership of a group is at risk, or feels as though it might be. It does depend, though, on how the individual and the group are able to work with shame – some forms of group shaming can close down all potential for learning and are experienced as a form of violence.
I am not making an argument against the idea that learning may be incremental, can be broken down into small steps and can involve praise and encouragement. Nor am I recommending destabilising group processes as an alternative. What I am pointing to, though, is how difficult it can be to ‘change mindset’, whether one’s own or someone else’s. The first obstacle is realising that one has a mindset, what it is and how it is maintained. This mindset is likely to be an amalgam of sometimes contradictory beliefs which we cling to because they have served us well and make us who we are. A change in mindset amounts to a change in identity, which is difficult to achieve for ourselves and even more so for other people. The idea that we might change other people’s mindsets also brings with it ethical questions about who we are to try and change other people’s identities, whether we think it is ‘good for them’ or not. Next, our mindsets may be impervious to tools and techniques or injunctions to be better or more open. In fact, despite our own desires to change we can often remain adamantly the same. Sometimes, perhaps the best we can achieve is to become a connoisseur of our own imperfections.