Imagine that your boss asks you to develop an Excel macro that will automatically format your client reports each month. Here’s the thing: you hardly consider yourself a spreadsheet whiz, and this task feels daunting.
So, what exactly motivates you to buckle down, dig into tutorials and research, and ultimately conquer that intimidating assignment?
Are you more motivated by:A) The fact that you get to learn more about an unfamiliar subject and expand your own knowledge?
B) The fact that you’ll impress your boss, and likely receive some praise and recognition to boot?
This is a pop quiz that you’re sure to ace, since there isn’t one right answer here. Your response might be totally opposite of what your colleague, your friend, or even your partner would answer with.
That’s because we all tackle our work with different mindsets, which can be boiled down into two distinct categories: a learning mindset or a performance mindset.
What Does It Mean To Have A Learning Mindset?
You’ll likely hear this referred to as numerous different terms, including a “growth mindset” or a “mastery mindset.”
“A learning mindset involves being motivated toward increasing one’s competence and mastering something new,” explains an article for Harvard Business Review.
If you’re truly a learner, you aren’t seeking out pats on the back or rounds of applause for the information you gather. You simply find a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in improving your own skills and expanding your knowledge. That’s all the reward you need.
This is a form of intrinsic motivation, meaning that you’re inspired to do something because of your own internal desires—rather than leaning on external factors to influence your behavior.
You Might Be A Learner If...
- You spend a good chunk of your own free time researching and learning about different topics, even if you can’t point to a tangible end benefit in doing so. You just enjoy it.
- You’re the one your team members, or even your boss, approach when they’re stuck or need more information. Why? They know you’re a fountain of knowledge.
- You find yourself feeling excited about problems, questions, or topics you don’t already understand, rather than feeling intimidated by them.
Potential Benefits Of Being A Learner…
- You have a strong commitment to self-improvement and continued learning, regardless of if it’s required or not.
- You’re more likely to accept critical feedback, because it’s an opportunity to learn. One 2008 study gave participants a difficult test. When they were done, they were asked if they’d rather look at the completed tests of people who had performed worse than them, or of those who had performed better than them. Unsurprisingly, those with a learning mindset chose to look at the tests of those who had performed better. Despite the suckerpunch to their egos, it was a chance for them to see what they could have done differently.
- You’re more likely to retain knowledge for the long haul, because you aren’t just cramming it into your brain for an immediate and fleeting benefit. Another study engaged participants in a problem-solving task. But first, they were split into two groups: the mastery group (who were told that their goal was to develop their own knowledge) and the performance group (who were told that their goal was to demonstrate their ability against all of the other participants). Those in the mastery group didn’t perform as well in the immediate memory test, but they showed far better memory performance when they were assessed one week later.
Potential Drawback Of Being A Learner…
- That near constant desire to learn and improve is admirable, but it can also be overwhelming, and even plain ol’ exhausting. In fact, the brain uses more energy than any other organ in the human body, accounting for up to 20% of our energy expenditures. Constantly placing demands on that noggin of yours can lead to burnout and even decreased performance.
What Does It Mean To Have A Performance Mindset?
In contrast to learners, performers are more motivated by recognition and praise. They aren’t in it just to learn something new—they get their sense of satisfaction from the hearty pats on the back they receive for doing so.
“A performance mindset involves being motivated toward gaining favorable judgements (or avoiding negative judgements) about one’s competence,” explains that same article for Harvard Business Review.
As you might guess, this lends itself more to extrinsic motivation, where you engage in a behavior because you’re seeking an external reward (whether that’s a raise, a promotion, or even just a heartfelt, “Way to go!” from your supervisor).
You Might Be A Performer If…
- You feel the most satisfied when you receive positive feedback and recognition from the people you work with, whether it’s your boss or your colleagues.
- You’ll readily admit that you care a great deal about everybody else’s perception of you.
- You’re always looking for opportunities to teach and share your knowledge at work, mostly because you like being regarded as the one with all of the answers.
Potential Benefits Of Being A Performer…
- You’re highly-conscientious about how your behaviors and actions are viewed by the people that you work with, because their perception means a great deal to you.
- You’ll experience better short-term learning. That same problem-solving study found that while people in the performance goal group didn’t have as great of long-term memory retention as those in the mastery goal group, they did perform better in the immediate memory test. So, if you’re in a position where you constantly need to learn and spit out new information, falling into the performer category can be a huge asset.
Potential Drawback Of Being A Performer…
- Your desire to constantly seek the approval and praise of others can occasionally be fruitless and demoralizing. Not everybody is skilled at offering positive feedback. One Harvard Business Review study found that 37% of leaders don’t offer any positive reinforcement at all. If you're always counting on that external validation, you’re at risk of experiencing higher levels of dissatisfaction and frustration.
Learner Vs. Performer: Why Does Mindset Matter?
Whether you’re a learner or a performer, there isn’t necessarily one that’s better than the other (as evidenced by the fact that they both have their own distinct pros and cons). They’re just different. And, even further, what category you identify with might change depending on the unique situation you’ve found yourself in.
For example, knowing that your whole team is counting on you to get a job done might send you leaning more toward a performance mindset. But, you might possess more of a learning mindset for the topics and passions that really interest you (whether that’s recognizing different bird species or understanding the ins and outs of quantum mechanics).
However, there’s probably one attitude that you find yourself subscribing to more than the other, and knowing what it is can lead to several benefits for you.
1. You’ll Understand How To Keep Yourself Motivated
It’s tempting to beat yourself up as lazy or apathetic, but what if the problem is that you just don’t grasp what really lights a fire under your own booty?
That’s one of the major advantages of understanding your mindset. With that information in hand, you now know which carrot to dangle in front of your own nose.
Maybe your motivation to complete those presentation slides is waning. But, if you remind yourself that your boss is bound to be impressed if you complete them ahead of the deadline, that might just be the kick in the pants you need to get them done.
2. You’ll Create A Better Relationship With Your Supervisor
Here’s a pretty frightening statistic: A whopping 95% of managers don’t understand what motivates their employees at work. When they were asked to point to the most powerful motivator for their team, the vast majority got it wrong. Yikes.
Of course, ideally the impetus would be on your boss to get an idea of what makes you tick. However, one of the best ways to get on the same page is to clearly communicate what makes you feel driven on the job—and that’s hard to do if you don’t understand that yourself.
Have you discovered that you’re a learner? Use that as an opportunity to tell your manager that you’d love to tackle bigger challenges or take on something unfamiliar. Are you more of a performer? Loop your boss in on the fact that praise and recognition really help you thrive.
While it can be a little intimidating, this sort of conversation is a win-win. Your supervisor will be equipped with the information they need to lead you more effectively, and you’ll benefit from a work environment that better suits your unique desires and preferences.
3. You’ll Do A Better Job Of Communicating With Your Team Members
Despite the fact that you know you and your coworkers might have different motivations at work, this can still be a point of contention on teams. We all grow increasingly frustrated when our colleagues don’t seem to share our same passion, understanding, or sense of urgency.
“Often, not only do they fail to understand others’ motivations, they blame them for being different, while being blind to the fact that the team is only successful because those other motivations compliment the people more like them,” writes Ian Nowland in an article for Medium.
Understanding your own mindset, along with the mindsets of your team members, means you’ll be able to find better ways to communicate and collaborate.
For you, maybe the fact that you get to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to improve your client’s results is what’s keeping you focused. But, for your teammate, maybe he finds more encouragement in the fact that you want the client to be impressed with the deliverable (and perhaps even pass on compliments to your boss about your work).
Knowing where each of you are coming from and what keeps you on the straight and narrow is powerful information to lean on—and will likely spare you tons of frustration and disagreements.
Find Where You Fit Thanks To Your Mindset
When you’re so focused on churning through your to-do list and just making it through your workday, you probably don’t take a lot of time to step back and think about your mindset.
Why are you so intent on getting those things done? What’s really at the root of your drive and commitment?
Motivation isn’t one-size-fits-all. However, when using broad strokes, you’re bound to identify yourself in one of these categories: a learner or a performer. And, while one isn’t superior to the other (we promise!) knowing where you fit offers a lot of benefits—including a surefire way to keep yourself on the path that provides you the greatest career, and life, satisfaction.
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