Many different aspects of our jobs can give us a sense of meaning – creating an exceptional product, improving our customers’ lives, learning something new, or gaining power and influence. These can vary for different people or at different times. As a manager, the most rewarding part of my job is supporting my team’s personal and professional growth.
And one of the most challenging and, at the same time, gratifying aspects of a leader’s job is helping change their team’s mindsets and preconceptions. This is both necessary for achieving great results and the greatest gift you can give them.
But what mindset shifts are we talking about?
Everyday tasks and processes
Every time I inherit a team, I am confronted with the “that’s how we do things here” bastion built on the “our customers/process/product is unique, and you’ve never seen anything like it” foundation. Even if the way they work is painful and inefficient, there is inevitably this shortness of imagination preventing them from seeing that things can be done differently.
And it used to cause incredible frustration in me how difficult it was to improve our work processes. Until I realized that the changes I wanted to bring would not only change the tasks my team performs. They would also result in a change in how they think about themselves and their roles. And such a change in mindset requires much more time and effort than simply learning the new process steps.
One of my favorite teams was especially challenging in that area. They were very talented and dedicated, but they worked hard instead of smart and relied more on individual initiative and knowledge than on process. This approach had worked well for them for a while. However, with the expansion of the team and increase in workload, it was no longer viable.
However, that was the only way of doing things they had ever known. They were understandably proud of their work, and it never occurred to them that an outsider could offer a helpful suggestion. They felt that adopting my methods would cause a shift in their team identity that they were not ready to accept.
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I am telling you, it took me months of coaxing, persuading, pushing, arguing, and silent and not-so-silent resistance until we managed to expand their view of themselves. But that first “Marta, you know, you were actually right, and your way is indeed more effective” is still one of my fondest memories as a manager.
Change is something our teams need to adapt to, not only in their everyday tasks. In today’s professional world, we are constantly immersed in change. We change our policies, organizational structures, the tools we use, how we communicate with each other and even where we work. And each of these changes comes with its set of hurdles, setbacks and inconveniences.
It is our responsibility and privilege as managers to support our teams through times of change. Some changes are easier and require just proper training, communication and transparency. But others, such as major organizational transformations or shifts in strategic direction, may require our teams to alter the way they see themselves and the company.
As leaders, we should be there to share new patterns of thinking and address doubts and reluctance.
Themselves and their future
As managers, we are responsible not only for our team’s results but also for the individuals in that team and their growth. And that growth often depends on our abilities to expand their horizons and change their mindsets about what they could be and what they could achieve.
This requires us to look at our team members objectively and be aware that the best path for them may lead them beyond our team. And I can attest that hearing “I would not be here if you had not shown me this road” from someone who has just achieved a huge career milestone is beyond priceless.
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How can we change our employees’ mindsets?
Well, the foundation, of course, is trust. There is no way for you to change anyone’s mind about anything if they don’t trust you. Building and maintaining trust is a big topic for me; you can read more about it here. It is the basis of everything you will ever achieve as a manager.
But now, let’s go into the actions you can take to help your team change their mindsets.
Paint a different picture of the world
I went for teeth cleaning a few weeks ago – an activity I particularly hate. However, this time I nearly did not feel the unpleasantness (almost) because I was distracted by the conversation that was taking place at the same time.
This time the cleaning was done by the head of the clinic, a prominent and established specialist overseeing my treatment. She was being assisted by a dental student who apparently was working as an assistant to gain some practical experience while finishing his studies.
But instead of gums and cavities, she was instructing him about life and career. Like most dental students in my part of the world, he imagined his future quite stationary: working in the same community to establish his reputation and patient group.
As a counterpoint, she painted a picture of a future where he travels the world and works as a dentist from anywhere he likes gathering professional and life experiences. It was clear that he had never thought about such possibilities before. And even though this one conversation would not change his plans for the future, I could see that a door for new possibilities had opened for him. Even if just a crack for now.
And that is something we all can do for our employees – show them the different futures that can be – for them, for the team or the organization. Sometimes even that is enough to plant the seed for a change in mindset.
Offer them different experiences
Job rotations and stretch assignments have long been established as prime tools for employee engagement. But the different experiences they bring are also a great way to bring about a shift in mindset.
Words can be a powerful catalyst for change, but sometimes nothing beats walking in someone else’s shoes for a day. It can show you the work, the organization and the world from a different vantage point and bring great insights.
I have found this approach particularly useful with employees who are not certain what is the next career step they want to take. Or with teams who work together but do not understand each other’s work well enough. All feelings of resentment and “we are so busy, and they do nothing all day” evaporate when you fill in for them for a couple of days.
Introduce curiosity and experimentation
Remember my brilliant but stubborn team from earlier? They taught me a precious lesson.
A change in the way we do things may be very threatening if it is perceived as a change in who we are. But that is only true if that change comes from outside and is considered permanent.
So what if we introduce changes as pilots or, even better – experiments? We can experiment with new processes, responsibilities, paradigms and ways of thinking, or even new versions of ourselves at work. We just need to outline the change we want to test, set a timeline and what we would consider a success, and go.
The experiment brings several very valuable benefits to the process of changing mindsets. On the one hand, it introduces the concept of failure in a non-threatening way. Failure is an inherent part of experimentation and can also bring scientific value. And in addition, the fact that the experiment has failed does not mean the team or individual has failed.
Experimentation also provokes curiosity which, besides being a great way to approach your work, brings a positive connotation to the change you are trying out.
Furthermore, experiments are, by definition, temporary, which immediately makes the change less scary.
And last but not least, it can act as a safety net for you as a manager if the change you are introducing ends up sucking.
And you can actually shift your employees’ mindsets just by being you. As a manager and leader, you have the potential to become a role model for your team and, as such open them up to new ideas, behaviors and attitudes.
On the one hand, this seems easy – you don’t have to make any special effort. Conversely, it can be intimidating to realize that your actions and ideas may profoundly influence others even when you don’t intend to.
As someone constantly raked by anxiety and self-doubt, I had quite a crisis the first time an employee told me they saw me as a role model. I immediately started examining my every word and minute action, wondering whether this was the behavior I would want to proliferate across the world.
I still don’t have an answer for that. But I do know that the cliched faux-Gandhi quote seen on every 15-year-old wannabe influencer’s Instagram account:
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
is very true about managers. So ensure your behavior and words are true to your values, as your employees may be watching. And their mindsets might be shifting.