Imagine, for a moment, that you are a mouse. Now, as a mouse, the thing you want most is cheese. But between you and the cheese is a sprint across the kitchen floor, right under the nose of a sleeping cat.
You could be the kind of mouse that the excitement caused by a whiff of cheese is all that is needed to drive you to action. Propelled by the anticipatory pleasure of the cheese, you are willing to take a risk, dashing confidently and quickly across the kitchen floor–all but disregarding the danger of your feline foe.
Alternatively, you could be the kind of mouse that is all too aware of the risk posed by the cat. Detecting the threat (or whiff of cat) early, you see the wisdom in waiting for an opportunity when the cat is out of sight and smell to make the dash for the cheese, secure in the knowledge that you have eliminated the risk.
Taking a step back from this metaphor, it’s not just mice that have differences in both sensitivity to reward and sensitivity to threat. In the 1970s a psychologist named Jeffrey Gray developed one of the earliest biologically-based theories of personality founded on these very mechanisms, ironically by initially studying small mammals (such as mice). Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory proposed that individual differences in the sensitivity of basic brain systems that respond to reinforcing and punishing stimuli are at the core of a range of psychological characteristics.
The behavioral activation system (BAS, for short) is sensitive to signals of reward, with higher BAS activity associated with optimism, reward-orientation, impulsiveness, and risk-taking. The behavioral inhibition system (BIS), on the other hand, is sensitive to signals of threat and is responsible for the resolution of goal conflict. BIS activity is characterized by risk-assessment and early threat detection. It’s the mechanism that allows us to approach opportunities with caution, well-aware of any potential danger. When it comes to managing ourselves, influencing others, and performing at our best in a work environment, both systems are clearly important to us.
To bring this to life in a practical way, we have developed a framework that helps to understand four different mindsets based on the combination of sensitivity to reward (or cheese to stick with the mouse analogy) and sensitivity to threat (the cat). Combining both the original theory outlined by Gray and our own experiences of working as performance psychologists with Olympic and professional sports, the COPE (acronym) framework was established to help individuals understand their own mindset preferences when there is something to win and something to lose.
This mindset is based on a blend of lower sensitivity to both reward and threat and is therefore not overly reactive to when things are going well or when things are not going so well. In other words, this is a measured response to most situations. It is characterized by calmness, stability, and composure that is grounded in certainty of the next direction to take when making decisions. In moments of high emotion, individuals with a strong preference for a contained mindset are not easily ruffled and keep a cool-headed focus on how to respond. The downside of a contained mindset can be that individuals become overly certain or dogmatic in their approach, and by rarely giving much away in their reactions, may be at risk of being perceived as disengaged or detached.
This mindset is based on a blend of lower sensitivity to threat, but higher sensitivity to reward. It’s therefore associated with greater tolerance of and willingness to take risks and an approach that is positive, opportunistic, and adventurous. Individuals with a preference for this mindset are easily excited by the potential gains and benefits of a situation and will go after them with a strong inner belief. Again, there are risks of becoming fixed just in this mindset, and overplayed it can lead to recklessness–especially just after a success, fuelled by the rush–or of being perceived as blindly optimistic.
This mindset is based on a blend of lower sensitivity to reward, but higher sensitivity to a potential threat. It’s therefore particularly adept at spotting potential hazards or pitfalls early and planning for them accordingly. Individuals with a preference for this mindset may be more likely to consider potential downsides and the unintended consequences of a course of action, preventing costly mistakes from being made. This is why they can be considered early threat detectors. Once again, if an individual stays fixed only to this mindset, they may become overly loss-averse, with the potential risks identified preventing action from ever being taken. If their concerns are not being understood as threat detection (i.e., wanting to avoid the cat so as to ensure a safe passage to the cheese), they risk being perceived as negative or pessimistic.
This mindset is based on a blend of higher sensitivity to both reward and threat and is therefore highly tuned in to changes in the environment. It enables individuals to notice and quickly respond to things changing around them. During change or periods of uncertainty, individuals with a preference for an engaged mindset are able to draw on emotions associated with both the risks and benefits and thus can adjust accordingly when a difficult situation quickly turns into an opportunity. However, individuals fixed in an engaged mindset may have difficulty making decisions when two equally appealing (or unappealing) options are presented and when one option needs to be chosen, and may, therefore, be perceived as indecisive.
It’s clear that each of these mindsets is useful and necessary to all of us in different situations, but we each have a propensity to favor one mindset over the others. The COPE model helps us to identify our natural preferences and provides a framework to help us develop a more adaptable mindset.
Know your own mindset preferences
First, it is important to recognize your own mindset preferences. Recognize the strengths and in what situations you might be at risk of overplaying them. Recognise which mindset(s) you find more difficult to shift into, and consider in which circumstances you may wish to tap into this perspective.
Shift around the mindsets
When planning a presentation, initiating a new project, or just preparing for a meeting or conversation with your team, ensure that you don’t get locked into your natural mindset by considering the situation from each different perspective. To shift around the mindsets, you may ask yourself: What is our current focus that we know for sure needs to happen? (contained); What are the big opportunities by going for this? (optimistic); What are the threats that we need to be aware of and plan for? (prudent); What might change that we need to stay aware of? (engaged).
Recognize the mindsets of your teammates or clients
Notice the mindset preferences of those around you to influence and work with them more effectively. When working with individuals with a preference for a contained mindset, avoid seeing a lack of reaction as disinterest. Help them by providing them with clarity, and if initiating a change, ensure that you emphasise what will remain stable and what won’t change during this process.
With individuals who have a preference for an optimistic mindset, ensure that you provide them with perceived opportunities and emphasise what can be gained when trying to help them understand a change.
For those individuals with more of a prudent mindset, avoid seeing their threat-detection as negativity. Instead, value this perspective by recognising the cats they have spotted when in pursuit of the cheese, and validate any concerns rather than dismissing them or dosing them with positivity.
Finally, allow those with more of an engaged mindset to change their mind from time to time without getting frustrated, and be curious as to what they have noticed that led to this change.
Research has shown numerous benefits of developing such adaptability in leaders, including its impact on overall team performance. Having the ability to adapt our mindset, depending on the situation we are in, allows us to stay focused on a goal but adjust how we go about achieving it in a more effective way.
Beyond developing awareness of our own mindset preferences, being able to recognize the mindset preferences of others enables us to be more effective at understanding, connecting, and influencing our teammates and clients, rather than making unhelpful or unproductive judgements of them.
Tim Pitt, Pete Lindsay, Mark Bawden, and Andrew Strauss are directors and performance psychologists at Mindflick, who have worked with a range of professional sports and Olympic athletes from Team GB.