"…in our experience over three decades helping individuals and organizations, the biggest lever for change is not a change in self-belief but a fundamental change in the way one sees and regards one’s connections with and obligations to others."
The Arbinger Institute’s latest book—not unlike their earlier Leadership and Self-Deception—is an easy read that challenges our thinking in deceptively profound ways.
Many of the books I’ve read and embraced emphasize changing behaviors—even small ones—as the starting point of larger change. The Arbinger Institute challenges the emphasis on behaviors and suggests that our foundational mindsets matter more—and that when people shift their underlying mindsets, the right behaviors emerge—and powerful results are achieved.
While I don’t think that mindset and behavior change are mutually exclusive—and that we do need to identify and work with the habits that support us and hold us back—this book is an important reminder that behaviors and habits are not the whole story. Our mindsets enable us to create powerful behaviors—especially when we need to improvise and navigate in new situations.
What makes The Outward Mindset an easy read is both that it’s fairly short and focused, and that the authors use memorable, varied and inspiring stories. They even include an index of stories so that we can easily find the ones that stuck with us and read them again. It’s a feature I’ve never seen before and found quite useful.
The Big Idea
The Shift to an Outward Mindset
"With an inward mindset, people behave in ways that are calculated to benefit themselves. With an outward mindset, people are able to consider and behave in ways that further the collective results that they are committed to achieve."
The authors begin with a story about a policeman who, after being part of a team that raided a home in pursuit of drug dealers, stopped in the kitchen, prepared bottles of formula and gave them to the mothers of the small children in the house. His superior was at first confused and then proud. This is what he’d taught his team to do—to see others as people first and act from a deep understanding of their needs.
It’s a great story that quickly gets to the heart of the outward mindset. It’s all about thinking about other people as people and putting their interests first—even when that seems like a rather strange thing to be doing. Moreover, the policeman’s action is a creative response in the moment—one that could never have been written up in a manual. It was a result of seeing clearly and with deep humanity.
Once the mothers calmed their babies, the tension in the house subsided dramatically and the danger level in the situation dropped. As in all the stories that the authors share, the outward mindset produced powerful results—often unexpected ones.
An outward mindset focuses on others, on what is important to all stakeholders: our employees, customers, manager, family members. An outward mindset means that we genuinely see (and hear and listen to) others. We evaluate their needs, objectives and challenges rather than focusing on our own. When we do this, options occur to us that never could have before (e.g., the formula story) and we can focus on the collective result we desire. In addition, those who work with an outward mindset take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their impact on the overall results of the organization.
An inward mindset is focused on self-benefit and self-concern—our individual self-interest or, if we are operating in a larger organization, our individual team or our division. The writers ask, “What is the cost of an inward mindset?” Their answer is that when “people focus on themselves rather than on their impact, lots of activity and effort get wasted on the wrong things.” Collaboration suffers, innovation is limited and “employees disengage due to the boredom inherent with inward-mindset thinking and working.”
Adopting an outward mindset requires ongoing effort—we can slide back, especially under stress—and can course correct when we do. As we adopt an outward mindset, we discover that we and our organizations are more alive and individuals are more engaged.
See, Adjust, Measure
"To be outward doesn’t mean that people should adopt this or that prescribed behavior… it means that when people see the needs, challenges, desires, and humanity of others, the most effective ways to adjust their efforts occur to them in the moment. "
The framework for working with the Outward Mindset goes by the acronym SAM—See others, Adjust efforts and Measure impact. An example that the authors bring is Alan Mulally’s work with his executive team when he came into (and turned around) the Ford Motor Company.
- See others: Mulally asked the team to see what each of their colleagues were doing and pushed the executives to reveal what wasn’t working, to be vulnerable about their real needs and challenges. It took several weeks before any executives were willing to be vulnerable—and to begin to understand that there would not be retribution if they were.
- Adjust efforts: Once challenges were revealed, Mulally invited the team to step in and help. Mark Fields was the first senior executive to open up about a serious challenge. Mulally then turned to the entire team and asked: “Who can help Mark with that?” The execs began to think and work across their silos and started to act in entirely new ways. They took responsibility for their colleagues’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities—not just for their small piece of the pie. (Fields, unsurprisingly, succeeded Mulally as Ford CEO several years later.)
- Measure impact: At weekly meetings, the executive team assessed the effects of the help they were providing across the entire team’s efforts.
Ford was the only major American auto manufacturer that weathered the financial crisis in 2008 without a government bailout. It was more resilient than its US competitors. That’s how significant an outward mindset can be.
Make the First Move
"So while the goal in shifting mindsets is to get everyone turned toward each other, accomplishing this goal is possible only if people are prepared to turn their mindsets toward others with no expectation that others will change their mindsets in return."
One of the most powerful actions that the authors encourage us to take is to adopt an outward mindset even when others don’t. Rather than complain, we can make the move we are waiting for the other person to make—we can act the way we want the other person to act. In the words of the authors, “this kind of unilateral change is the essence of true leadership.”
While we think this might lead us to be taken advantage of, it is not a “soft” thing to do—in fact it’s a hard behavior that requires courage. Putting other’s interests first when we aren’t sure others are doing the same is a scary move. The authors claim it’s how outward mindsets start—and that we become open, curious and aware and, with patience, influence the system around us.
As I read this book and thought about the shift from an inward to outward mindset, I began to wonder if any organization can truly thrive without this shift and if, behind any truly great organization is an outward mindset. It’s a thought I’ve been fascinated by—and would love to hear your thoughts!