Four Mindset Traps Holding You Back at Work

How to push past a fear of failure, a fixation on appearances, and other self-sabotaging ways of thinking

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AA couple years ago, I got a weekend gig managing a fresh pasta stand at my local farmers market. It was supposed to be laid-back; the extra money was nice, but I was really in it for the conversation. I work from home, and I had been missing social interaction.

The pasta stand was also the first time I was in charge of other people — and in hindsight, I was decidedly not laid-back about it. In fact, I quickly became the market’s resident tyrant, utterly convinced that I knew the best way to do everything and frustrated that my fellow employees didn’t agree. If I had a nickel for every time I muttered “Just let me do it,” I could have bought out all the pasta we had.

The result, of course, was that we were an operational mess, and I went home from what should have been a fun weekend job drained and annoyed. The problem wasn’t that my fellow employees weren’t capable. But as a leader, I was stuck in what Christopher S. Reina, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls an “implemental” mindset: I was so focused on just getting things done that I refused to open myself up to new ideas or approaches.

“The leader’s not the hero,” Reina says. “A good leader is more humble.”

If you’re struggling at work, Reina notes, your mindset may be to blame. In a new paper in the journal Leadership Quarterly, Reina and his co-author, the California State management professor Ryan K. Gottfredson, explore four common mindset traps that get in the way of leadership development. If any of these sound familiar, it may be time to do some honest self-reflecting.

The fixed mindset

A fixed mindset is the belief that people are largely incapable of improving themselves, because skills and abilities are innate rather than malleable. In a leadership context, “it’s when leaders have the mindset that they have so much experience and knowledge that they’re always right,” says Steve VerBurg, president of the Orange County office of the leadership-training organization Dale Carnegie. “They shut down other people or innovative ideas because they feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve been here 20 years, I know what I’m doing.’”

Instead, adopt a growth mindset, which hinges on the belief that people can always learn and improve. This doesn’t mean incompetent employees get unlimited chances, but it does entail thinking through the way you give instructions or feedback. Rather than saying to someone, “Just do your best,” assuming their “best” has a ceiling, say things like, “I want you to try, because that’s how you’ll improve.”

The performance mindset

A leader stuck in a performance mindset is so afraid to fail that they’re often unwilling to encourage new, progressive ways of doing something.

The more productive alternative is a learning mindset, where appearing competent matters less than actually being so. “Ask yourself how you work through difficult situations,” says Reina, who also runs a training program called Leading Without Ego. “For someone in a performance mindset, a failure is something that threatens their self-worth, as opposed to a learning mindset, which says, ‘Hey, I failed. I learned. I won’t do that again.’”

The prevention mindset

The more power we get, the more we want to hang onto it. That’s just human nature. But it can thrust us into a prevention mindset, where we focus more on avoiding problems than on making real change or progress.

Often, though, this backfires: People stuck in a prevention mindset “start to create problems,” VerBurg says, “because they’re not open to the collaboration that they should be trying to achieve.” It’s an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality that ends up doing the breaking.

Getting out of the prevention mindset means letting go of the fear of failure, and entering a promotion mindset: Instead of planning for what could go wrong, set and then pursue more proactive goals.

The implemental mindset

The traditional definition of a “boss” is simple: They’re the person who makes decisions, and tells everyone what to do. Someone stuck in an implemental mindset may be too focused on pushing forward to consider whether they’re moving in the right direction.

Adopting a deliberative mindset, on the other hand, means “being more open and vulnerable, caring more about the process than the actual result,” Reina says. “It’s wanting to make the appropriate decision,” even if it takes more time to get there.

The easiest way to get into a deliberative mindset is to slow down the decision-making process. Weigh pros and cons, and consider how choices will affect the people on your team. Examine an option from all angles before going ahead with it.

While I wasn’t aware of the concept during my pasta-stand days, I eventually came around to the deliberative mindset out of exhaustion more than anything else: I was just too tired to keep rejecting other people’s input. Once I embraced the idea that I didn’t necessarily know best, things improved dramatically. We were more efficient, my co-workers and I were all a lot more relaxed, and I even started to enjoy myself again. Best of all, I no longer recoil every time I see fresh spaghetti.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at

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