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Steve Hearsum


Consultant, Facilitator, Supervisor & Coach

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Mindsets. Do you really know what one is?


Mindsets – they seem to be increasingly popular, yet misunderstood and misused. More seriously, the word ‘mindset’ often appears without definition, without its underlying assumptions about personality and people made clear, or any explanation of why one mindset might be better than another.

At a recent HR conference, for example, I became increasingly frustrated by the opening panel discussion on ‘how technology is changing HR’. The term ‘technology’ is often used as a catch-all without real definition of the category of technology or the question or need the technology might address.

But within this discussion, the word ‘mindset’ was used frequently in the context of how technology required and/or might help change the mindset of leaders and managers.

I asked the panel to explain what they meant by mindset and their underlying assumptions. One panellist confessed maybe he hadn’t really understood my question – it wasn’t that challenging, to be fair, and the others around the table seemed to get it – while another went off on a riff that served to confirm they had a definition of what they believed was an appropriate mindset.

If you can pick out here what exactly a ‘digital mindset’ is and is not, it’s fair to say you’re a cleverer bunny than me.

Nothing wrong with that. Unless you are presenting your version as being the right one…

The term ‘digital mindset’ is another example of what I’m talking about here. Do a search for the term online. Go on. Do it. No time? Not to worry, click here.

Here’s a sample of what you get from the first two pages of search results:

  • Forbes – ‘The 5 keys to a digital mindset’ – which are, apparently (1) Provide Vision Yet Empower Others, (2) Give up control yet architect choices, (3) Sustain yet disrupt, (4) Rely on data yet trust intuition, (5) Be sceptical yet open minded.
  • Aaron Dignan – ‘Digital isn’t software, it’s mindset’
  • PWC – ‘Digital IQ series part one: Mindset is key to the digital future of business’, but the article fails to define what the mindset in question consists of.

If you can pick out here what exactly a ‘digital mindset’ is and is not, it’s fair to say you’re a cleverer bunny than me.

Is there a definitive definition?

Not that I know of, because that assumes someone has ‘the’ answer, or is the source to which we all defer.

But one of the best definitions I have come across, which is similar to or echoes some of the above, is from a Director of Digital I know. He suggests a digital mindset includes the following characteristics:

  • User-centred – not customer or product-centred
  • Collaborative – working well together, supporting and challenging those around you, in particular having constructive conflict and robust dialogue when needed, regardless of position/status
  • Innovative – including having an appropriate attitude to risk and being prepared to do the required dance i.e. you might make mistakes and get things wrong, and so will your people. You ok with that?
  • Adaptability – some say agility, but he and I both prefer adaptability. This is about developing your own resilience and adaptability to ensure you stay grounded and are agile relative to context and need.

I like that. It fits my frame for leadership, organisations and people. There you go. You know my bias now, and my basis for liking this definition is anecdotal, experiential and grounded in what I have read. For example, Roffey Park’s recent report, Living in a Matrix, does not use the term ‘digital mindset’, but it maps remarkably well onto the above. Emmanuel Gobillot’s writing also resonates here, as does Frederic Laloux’s.

Rewind and reassess

Part of the problem is our understandable rush as human beings, particularly in the context of communities and organisations moving ever faster in response to social technology and changes in social processes, to explain and make sense of what we experience. We do this at the cost of understanding what we are saying and why.

Let’s start with definitions. What is a ‘mindset’?


  1. an attitude, disposition, or mood.
  2. an intention or inclination.

Ok. Where does the word come from?

  • mindset (n.) also mind-set, “habits of mind formed by previous experience,” 1920, in educators’ jargon, from mind (n.) + set (v.).

But look at how words can be appropriated. Carol Dweck, for example, has written a successful and useful book on the subject of mindsets. She says on her website:

“Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success”

Discovered by Dweck? I am not sure that is true. Her framing and development of growth and fixed mindsets is excellent, and has real utility, but why the need to claim absolute ownership?

The critical illusion (or delusion)

Nested in all the rhetoric around mindset is an assumption (I suspect) along the line of “once we have developed enough people with this type of mindset, then we will be ok”.

Really? Until when?

What do you do when the external environment changes, or the internal one? Is the mindset you need in finance the same as in marketing, customer service, sales or HR? If they are different, how are they different? Who gets to decide? Will you include the people whose mindsets you want to ‘change’?

And that question is the kicker.

You cannot change someone else’s mindset because you cannot change what someone else thinks. You can only change the conditions such that they might choose to change their mindset / attitude / beliefs / values etc. To believe otherwise is to inhabit the realm of fantasy.

You cannot change someone else’s mindset because you cannot change what someone else thinks.

The risk of unsubstantiated mindset grand standing

The story earlier from the HR conference is a good example of how ‘mindset’ can be used to create categories that define groups of people as being somehow either right or wrong, of having something in their heads that is either right or wrong, and that allow one party to make that judgement.

I have a fear that mindset is being used increasingly as a way to label and judge in service of a black and white view of the world, rather than integrating and valuing difference. The real art in navigating and influencing what happens in complex human systems includes such things as:

  • Understanding how people (actually) are
  • Seeing and hearing their differences and navigating the patterns that emerge in (and around and between) relationships
  • Negotiating with people around how that helps, hinders and serves collective purpose
  • Paying attention to whether you have enough sameness or too much, or too much difference or not enough
  • Getting the balance between support and challenge good enough
  • Adapting when all of the above is not working

And in this context, I struggle to see how one ‘mindset’ is sufficient, or ‘right’, and another not.

One Response

  1. Mindset is a cultural shift
    Mindset is a cultural shift which cannot be introduced overnight. Digital mindset takes long to become an integral part of the daily business. Traditions and cultural values followed by leaders have a great influence on any organization’s mindset. An innovative mindset should be acceptable as far as it doesn’t affect the mission and vision of the company.

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Steve Hearsum

Consultant, Facilitator, Supervisor & Coach

Read more from Steve Hearsum

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