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November 24, 2020

How Your Mindsets Can Hold You Back

by Wendy Ryan in Blog Roll, Embracing Failure

Your mindsets are one of the most important enablers of your success as a leader—and they can be hard to shift because according to my colleague, Ryan Gottfredson, they are the lenses through which you view your team members, your organization, outside events – everything. Just like a pair of glasses, most of the time you aren’t even aware they are there.

As a leader, your mindsets impact how receptive you are to considering new information that contradicts your current understanding. How you handle that will in turn affect your decision making. It makes the difference between you drawing more reality-based vs. ego-based conclusions.

Thinking big – generating a compelling vision for the future of the organization that goes beyond incremental improvements – will either be enhanced or diminished by your mindsets. If you have a strong prevention mindset vs. a promotion mindset, for example, you might find it challenging to let your imagination take the lead over your desire to play it safe.

Are you an imposter?

How many times have you felt like you didn’t belong where you are? You don’t know enough, you haven’t prepared enough for the role you’re in, and maybe you’re afraid that if you don’t always have all the answers, everyone will find out you’re secretly a fraud?

If you’ve ever felt as if you aren’t enough, you aren’t alone. It’s called imposter syndrome, and you’d be surprised at how many people it affects. Yes, CEOs and celebrities too.

We talk about these kinds of issues with clients all the time. Imposter syndrome knows no boundaries—gender, race, education, years of experience, or career title. For leaders, it can be really problematic.

Imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young has identified common patterns in these kinds of feelings. Do you experience any of these?

  • The Perfectionist – You set the bar very high, and if you don’t make it (even if you’re close), you feel like a failure.
  • The Expert – You need to know all possible information before you start anything. If you can’t consider yourself an expert, you won’t even try to do it.
  • The Natural Genius – Maybe you spent part of your life coasting because everything came easily to you—so when you struggle, it feels as if you don’t belong there. You must not be good enough, or it would be easy.
  • The Soloist – Related to the Expert and the Genius, you think that if you ever have to ask for help, it’s proof that you’ve failed because you really can’t do it alone.
  • The Superhumxn – You push yourself to do all and be all. You work extremely hard to earn being where you are and you feel stress if you aren’t accomplishing something.

Oh, crap—what if I get everything I want?

“Fear of success” is the opposite of imposter syndrome. And it can strike before you know it and become an obstacle you put in your own way.

Why on earth would you be afraid of success? Because with success comes attention, responsibility and accountability. If you become “the tallest blade of grass,” you might get cut down.

Where do these issues come from?

The feelings we internalize often stem from how we’re brought up. The values and messages from our individual families and cultures become deeply rooted in us.

You might have ingrained messages about the importance of individualism vs collectivism. For instance, standing out by achieving something independent of others is a deeply held value among many white people in the U.S. but is not typically idealized to the same extent in other cultural groups in the U.S. This is not to say that non-white cultures don’t value achievement, but rather that the focus is often less on how an achievement elevates the individual vs. how it will elevate the community.

Family and friend groups have their own value systems, too. If you do something radically different, it can separate you from your family or friends. You feel fear or even shame because it disrupts the system they’ve built, so they don’t make it a comfortable place for you to be. Maybe your childhood experiences with your parents had a negative impact on you that you feel to this day. But these things also happen as an adult. You could have lost a bunch of weight or broken up with a spouse, and someone you’re close to may have tried to sabotage it.

What can you do?

To fight the inertia holding you back, you have to overcome the gravity of a system that keeps you where you are.

Step 1 – Be clear on your “why.” What’s your mission? What are you personally and organizationally committed to?

We can tolerate a lot of discomfort if it’s for a really meaningful cause.

If you’re not anchored to a meaningful why, here’s one way to do it. Ask yourself, Why would I want to be a billionaire? What would being a billionaire enable YOU to do in the world? What would you do if there was nothing standing in your way?

Step 2 – Notice what comes up for you in your self-talk as you experience success and setbacks. As you notice it, challenge it. Ask yourself how it’s serving you or not serving you.

What would it look like if you talked to yourself differently?

Step 3 – Extend kindness and grace to yourself. If you wouldn’t say it to your child or your best friend, don’t say it to yourself.

Remember that there aren’t too many people who go straight up to success. And none of them actually did it alone. Almost always, it’s a rocky climb and other people had a role – positive or negative – in manifesting that success. You will experience problems or setbacks and you won’t always respond with your best self—but don’t beat yourself up about it. Lots of other things will beat you up as you go; don’t do it to yourself.

Be your own ally and best friend.

Create a safe space for yourself

Our minds’ oldest and least conscious operating system is “safety-first”. When we know we’re taking any kind of risk – speaking truth to power online, for instance, if no one chastises us, our own minds will often do the job for us.

Part of the reason is that our safety-first operating systems in our brains don’t distinguish between threats to physical, emotional or psychological safety. We process anticipated discomfort the same way we process anticipated physical danger.

So, if you’re anticipating a special trip or event, your mind will say, “Don’t get your hopes up.” If you’re about to try something new, it says, “Maybe you’re not good enough to do that” or “Maybe this won’t go well.”

However, as good as most of us are at self-preservation, humans also have incredible generative creativity. Some of the greatest innovations have come from a leader putting safety-first thoughts aside and saying, “Why not?” Why not dream this or do that? What if I had no limits or constraints? What could we do?

Leaders need to create those spaces for themselves and for their teams just to dream of what’s possible.

If we’re free to dream, we come up with amazing ideas. We need to be intentional about that. That’s how we grow.

Don’t let your mindsets hold you back.