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What is Mindset? And how does it relate to motivation?

An awful lot is said about mindset these days.  You must change your mindset on this, adopt that.. ..for this or that reason.

Everyone seems to have their own view of what a mindset is, and what kind you should have, but there’s no universally accepted definition.

Gary Klein, writing in Psychology Today describes mindset as:

a belief that orients the way we handle situations — the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do.

Dweck’s fixed and growth mindset

Carol Dweck popularised the idea of fixed and growth mindsets. According to Dweck’s research if you adopt a fixed mindset, that is if you believe that your ability is innate, you are likely to respond less positively to failure.  If you adopt a growth mindset – believing that your ability is down to effort, then you are more likely to respond well.  Dweck’s work is linked to motivation, which we’re happy about, but in a limited way. Dweck only really talks about our beliefs about ability. Dweck’s main research is also a developmental model,  researched in an educational setting, and therefore it’s applicability to adults and the world of work is questionable.

Our view is that there’s a lot more to mindset than fixed vs growth.


Challenge and threat states

A view that is popular in sport psychology is that of challenge and threat states (Jones et al). This view is often express in similar terms to Dwecks fixed vs growth mindsets, insofar one is seen as more optimal than the other. However they are different. A challenge states in one in which you are more likely to react positively to stressors or difficult situations. By contrast, if you see stressors as a threat you are more likely to react negatively.

As Uphill and colleagues identified, the challenge and threat perspective is limited and perhaps simplistic.

In fact, we could find pretty much every different model of mindset and describe them all using one framework – Apter’s motivational styles.


Apter’s Motivational Styles

As our motivations changeThe Apter framework (Reversal Theory) describes eight motivational styles, or states of mind, that directly influence emotions.

These motivations are organised into four oppositional pairs, like a set of binary switches that are constantly changing from one state to the other.

Let’s explore what this means for both fixed and growth mindsets, and challenge and threat states.

Dweck, Threat States and Apter

When you read into Dwecks’ work it becomes apparent that a fixed mindset leads to new learning situations being experienced in a threat state. In Reversal Theory terms, this invokes the ‘serious’ motivational style, as opposed to the ‘playful’ which is similar to a challenge state.

In other words, the ideas of fixed vs growth and challenge vs threat are compatible with Apter’s motivational styles. However, they only really explore two of eight motivational styles, and therefore a very limited range of experiences. Looking only at threat states, for example, whether we respond with fight (anger) or flight (anxiety) isn’t explained as it would be with Apter’s work.  This is just one way that Apter’s work can pick up nuances that many other frameworks don’t.

The advantage of motivational styles is versatility

We think, therefore, that the big advantage of Apter’s framework is its versatility. Rather than labelling one or two of competing mindsets, it gives you the opportunity to explore how different states of mind combine in different ways.

In this sense motivations are the building blocks of mindset. If you can see different ways of putting these building blocks together, you have more to work with. It’s like having a lego set rather than the finished model and opens up our understanding of mindset rather than closing it down. Rather than limiting the discussion to, for example fixed vs growth mindsets, it enables people to think more broadly and manage their response to different situations.

Reversal Theory also has diagnostic power, because it provides a map between motivations and emotions. Problems can be defined in emotional terms, but because motivations are changeable, that is where solutions often lie. 

The downside of motivational styles is complexity

The downside of Apter’s Reversal Theory as a framework for describing mindset is that it is a bit more complex and it does take a bit of work to get to know. While we can see the appeal of using convenient labels like fixed and growth, or challenge and threat, we think it’s worth the extra work.

But what we can show you is that innovation, change and performance, for example, all draw upon different states of mind at different times. So sometimes other frameworks oversimplify the issue.

If you would like to explore the potential of Reversal Theory further, contact us or check our Apter coach certification training.

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