The Power of Mindset: Challenge and Threat

Author: Lydia English – Trans2Performance / Editors: Charlotte Davies, Liz Herrieven / Codes: CC15, CC23 / Published: 28/01/2020

A person’s mindset is a very powerful thing. The state in which our mindset is in can have a huge impact on the way we approach tasks and the chances of us completing a task successfully.

Here at T2, we have come up with something that we call the challenge vs. threat state mindset theory. There’s a very subtle difference between the two mindsets, however, the outcomes that each produce are very, very different.

Challenge State Mindset

When someone adopts a challenge state mindset, they are aware of the consequences of a situation, the potential risks and the chances of failure, yet are 100% focused on the end goal and achieving the task at hand.

Threat State Mindset

When someone is in a threat state mindset, they are solely focused on the consequences of a situation, the potential risks and the chances of failure, and completely eradicate any focus on actually achieving the task.

Put simply:
Challenge State = Focus on achieving the task
Threat State = Focus on avoiding failure

To help explain the theory a little better, let’s transfer it into a real life context.

The Rugby Player: During the first half of a game, a particular player dropped the ball on several occasions. At the half time team talk, the coach singles the player out and says, “Do not drop the ball”. What the coach doesn’t realise is that, by saying this, he has now put the player into a threat state mindset. He is now focused on avoiding failure – not dropping the ball. When it came to him catching the ball the second half, guess what the player did? He dropped the ball!

What the coach should have said to the player is something along the lines of, “In the second half, really focus on catching the ball”. Telling him to focus on what he needs to achieve, would put the player into a challenge state mindset, and as a result, make him much more likely to catch the ball.
This example demonstrates how just a simple change to the way that something is communicated can make a massive difference to someones performance. RCEMLearning has talked about this before in the nocebo podcast.

Having worked with hundreds of organisations, we’ve seen many examples of leaders putting their teams and employees into a threat state mindset. Being in the position that they are in, it’s very easy for leaders to alter the mindsets of their employees. What is important is that they aim to put them into a challenge state rather than a threat one. Telling their employees what they need to be avoiding rather than what they need to achieve is the mistake that many leaders make.

Closed vs. Open Loop Thinking

Closed and Open loop thinking are another two types of mindset, that, depending on which one we choose to adopt, can produce very different outcomes.

Closed Loop Thinking
When a person predetermines the outcome of an event/scenario/situation before it occurs.

Open Loop Thinking

When a person makes a conscious effort to not let earlier judgments and experience affect how they approach a task/scenario/situation.

Lets use another real life context to explain this further.

The Marketing Meeting: A marketing team are in their monthly meeting discussing ways in which they can increase their online engagement. One member of the team suggests running a social media campaign, to which the marketing manager responds; “We tried that a few months ago and it didn’t work, it’s just money down the drain”. This is an example of closed loop thinking; the manager has predetermined the outcome of the campaign without trying it.

However, if the manager adopted an open loop thought process, their response may have been something like this; “We’ve tried running social media campaigns before, but they haven’t been very successful. However, we should try it again, but let’s really focus on the key words we use in the campaign and try to narrow down the type of person we are trying to target”. The manager here is making a conscious effort to not let the outcome of the last social media campaign stop them from trying it again and approaching it from a different angle.

Challenge vs threat state mindset and closed vs open loop thinking often interlink. Someone who adopts a challenge state mindset is much more likely to be an open loop thinker. Similarly, someone with a threat state mindset is likely to be a closed loop thinker. The examples provided show that making a small change to the way that you communicate a message or approach a task can drastically change the performance and productivity of your teams and organisation.

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