Isn’t it fascinating that stories from long ago that we hold of ourselves and of others and that others hold of us find their way into our present? And maybe more than just find their way. Some guide our days, invisible in presence but powerful in force. This is a mind-set—a way of looking at the world, a situation, or ourselves; a set of assumptions that guides our actions. Mind-sets can determine whole schools of thought. Mind-sets determine for many of us what we believe is possible.
Mind-sets aren’t inherently good or bad, but they are a necessary part of how we function. Without a mind-set to help filter the amount of data coming at us at any given time, we could end up feeling overwhelmed. However, mind-sets also hold great power to help or hinder us in our day-to-day lives. Tacit cognition maps are the filters through which individuals decide what is plausible and possible. Consider what happened when Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile on May 6, 1954. Prior to that it was thought impossible to run this distance in less than four minutes. Two months after Bannister’s epic accomplishment, two more individuals ran sub-four-minute miles; many attribute that accomplishment to the newfound belief that it could actually be done. In essence, what we feel we can influence affects what we actually do influence.
New research shows it’s more than a Pollyanna outlook or the power of positive thinking, but an idea that has its basis in multiple fields, including neuroscience, quantum physics, and psychology. Science is now proving two important concepts that have long been held as common sense:
What we expect to happen strongly influences what actually happens. Take, for example, the science behind the placebo effect: in a 2005 study, people given a sugar pill instead of a pain reliever experienced marked and measurable relief comparable to “a clearly analgesic” dose of morphine. Their focus was redirected from their pain to the idea of pain relief, which activated those circuits in the brain. They experienced what they expected.
With continued attention, mind-sets become permanent, stable pathways in the brain. This is an idea that began in quantum physics with the Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE), which found that simply observing a system (in this case rapidly decaying beryllium atoms) reduced the rate at which that system changed. UCLA’s Jeffrey Schwartz applied the QZE to neuroscience and found that “the mental act of focusing stabilizes the associated brain circuits.”
Psychologists and sociologists have put the idea into practice, showing that drawing continued attention to a new idea can cause an increase in positive outcomes. Severely depressed patients focusing regular, ongoing attention on optimism experienced an improvement in their symptoms.
Managers given not just training but also follow-up coaching experienced increased productivity. By paying repeated attention to a new idea or mind-set, it becomes a regular part of our thought processes, which determines how we approach the world and the actions we take as a result. That’s a lot of power, knowing that just by changing the way you think about an issue, you can proactively impact the outcomes achieved.
Awareness that each of us has mind-sets from which we operate—and that these mind-sets directly impact our behavior, decisions, and actions—builds one’s leadership capacity. Mind-sets are not static; they are dynamic, and with new information and/or experience we can shift our mind-sets. The key is being conscious of your mind-sets and open to challenging them.
This article is excerpted from Leading with Intention: Every Moment is a Choice by Mindy Hall, PhD (© 2014 by Mindy Hall, PhD).
—Mindy Hall, PhD, is the president and CEO of Peak Development Consulting, LLC. She has more than 25 years of experience in organization and leadership development.