Ryan Gottfredson, assistant professor of management at Cal State Fullerton, is pioneering a new path in leadership research— a focus on mindsets. His work, recently highlighted in Harvard Business Review, could fundamentally change leadership training and development.
In his study, “Exploring Why Leaders Do What They Do: An Integrative Review of the Situation-Trait Approach and Situation-Encoding Schemas,” Gottfredson applied the latest findings from psychology and neuroscience to leadership research and concluded that the best way to develop effective leaders is to improve their mindsets.
This approach diverges from traditional leadership study which focuses on the traits that a leader needs to have and the behaviors they should employ. Gottfredson believes the mindset approach provides a richer understanding of leadership because it takes both leaders’ personalities and the situations around them into account.
The Workings Inside Leaders’ Brains
Why leaders do what they do is only partly based on their personality. Using a psychological framework called the Cognitive-Affective Processing System, Gottfredson explains that how leaders express themselves in a given situation is based on the specific cues they absorb. The brain interprets (encodes) specific situational cues which in turn triggers parts of the personality and drives a response.
Gottfredson continues, “This explains why leaders express themselves differently in contrasting situations, and why different leaders might respond distinctly even when exposed to similar situations. It also says that when the situational cues are the same, the leader tends to have a similar reaction.”
The crux of the CAPS framework is the ‘encoder,’ better known as one’s mindset. It is the mental lens through which one sees and interprets the world.
“Mindsets dictate what leaders pay attention to, how they process information and how they behave,” Gottfredson explains. “Mindsets make it clear why two leaders with the same traits — say extroversion and charisma — can react to a situation in completely different ways.”
He continues, “In reality, mindsets are neural connections in our brain that are primed to fire when specific cues are detected. As the neural connections strengthen, so does the automatic and habitual reaction. This can lead to a speedy reaction but also biases and being closed off to alternative perspectives.”
The Four Mindsets
Gottfredson describes four mindset areas, all of which fall on a continuum:
- Growth versus fixed: Believing that one is able (growth) versus unable (fixed) to change one’s talents, abilities or intelligence
- Learning versus performance: Being motivated to increase one’s competence (learning) versus being motivated to gain favorable judgments or avoid negative judgments about one’s competence (performance)
- Open versus closed: Being open versus closed to the ideas and suggestions of others
- Promotion versus prevention: Seeking to gain and win versus seeking not to lose
The optimal mindset configuration for effective leadership is growth, learning, open and promotion. For people who don’t naturally fall into those mindsets, the good news is that they can shift theirs along the continua with simple interventions such as group discussions, short writing assignments or video trainings.
“It’s like going to the gym for your brain,” Gottfredson says. “A relatively small intervention can have short-term effects, and with continued practice, it rewires your brain and your behavior.”