Dr. Ramya Ranganathan is Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management, IIM Bangalore
Taking up a new job or role is a key point in most of our lives. However, we often tend to oversee how the attitude and mindset that we bring to a new job or role, are as important (if not more) than the characteristics of the job itself. Advances in psychology have shown without doubt that our minds serve as a lens through which we filter information that comes into our awareness. Not just this, even the mental interpretation of the information that comes is largely subject to our own mental models (the internal scripts we hold about how things are related to one another). Such mental models are useful (and even essential) to function efficiently in the world, but on the flip side they begin to limit the possibilities we can see in any given situation.
Let’s examine what happens if we hold a mental model of work as something that is a chore, that needs to be fulfilled in exchange for the salary we receive. With such an interpretation of our job, our focus will automatically be on merely finishing every task that our boss gives to us. Our internal definition of good performance at work will translate into carrying out the tasks handed over to us but nothing more than that. This way we tend to miss out on noticing wonderful opportunities that might be present, but camouflaged in a form that falls outside our current job description. As a result, we tend to remain ‘stuck in the rut’ of our current job descriptions. And because we view work as a chore, we feel unable to enjoy it or find deeper meaning in it that goes beyond fulfilling the employment contract. This state most often leads to the absence of intrinsic motivation drastically reducing the quality of our performance and work output, thereby limiting our possibilities for enjoying work even further.
Let’s examine what happens instead if we hold a mental model of work as an opportunity for self development. In such a case, our automatic focus will be to view every event that unfolds at the workplace as a learning opportunity. An additional step to adopting a learning mindset is to take the time out to reflect on our own core values and deep interests and create a personal mission statement of ‘what we want to achieve in life’. Once this is done, we can frame our future jobs or roles as a series of opportunities to execute tasks and learn lessons that will help us in our own personal mission. Adopting such a mindset can effortlessly shift us into a ‘zone of appreciation and contribution’ even as we are engaged in the day to day tasks of our workplace. We automatically begin to feel grateful about our job because we view it as an opportunity that takes us closer to our own personal mission. Without even realizing it, we become open and perceptive to notice and recognize career opportunities which might move us further in the direction of our personal missions and goals (because that is what we are focused on).
Working with such a mindset is exciting, no doubt but it also frees us up to enjoy our work with a sense of heightened focus and awareness (a state referred to as ‘flow’ in the psychological literature). Experiencing the state of flow at work is enjoyable and fulfilling in the same way that most people typically enjoy a sporting activity or favourite hobby. One performs the activity for the intrinsic rewards of the activity itself (like in sports or hobbies) and the pay or salary you receive in exchange, is an added bonus.
Yet another benefit of framing one’s work in the context of a personal mission is that as we increasingly pick roles and assignments that are related in some way to our own personal mission, our work begins to get infused with a sense of personal meaning and purpose. This sense of meaning and purpose leads to feeling intrinsically motivated at work, which eventually leads to both better performance as well as greater fulfilment. Better performance brings forth increased opportunities and autonomy and eventually this becomes a positive spiral. The experiences that unfold at work serve to reinforce our initial mindset or mental model of work as truly being a wonderful opportunity for self development and a chance to move closer to our own personal mission.
To conclude, our mental attitudes or mindsets towards work, and the context in which we frame our jobs (an opportunity to learn or move towards our personal mission as opposed to a chore or obligation) can be key to determining how our day at the office will eventually unfold. In fact, our mindset or attitude is probably one of the few things that is almost totally within our control, when compared to other factors like the behaviour of other people, requirements of the organization, or state of the economy. Given the non-linear feedback effects through which mindsets influence experiences, it is a prudent choice to do some inner work (on our own attitudes and mental models) before we actually step into our first day at work to engage with the outer work.