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“Digital Ready” - It’s All About the Mindsets

By Dan Burrier and Julie Hussain

One of the most persistent challenges we encounter in developing effective leaders in organizations is that of labeling people, and nowhere is this more apparent than when discussions of the new digital world arise. Say digital and most everyone in business, academics, government—even the average person on the street—will quickly start labeling people as digitally savvy or “not digitally savvy.”

As early as 2001, Marc Prensky, in his widely distributed essay introduced the terms “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrant,” with Natives being those who were born directly into the digital age, and Immigrants being those to whom digital happened. Being age- and chronology-based, the Native/Immigrant distinction has often been challenged—more recently with the distinction between Residents and Visitors of the digital world highlighted in this VR Project article.

In this model, Residents live in a digital world in which they express themselves fully and build and maintain human relationships in the online space, while Visitors dip in to digital to accomplish specific tasks. Presented more as a continuum, this framing solves the age-based problem, but still tends to place people in one camp or the other at any point in time. Then, of course, there is the persistent labeling of people as Millennials or “not Millenials” (i.e., everyone else).

Regardless of the framing, two management questions arise out of such labels:

  1. How do I lead and manage teams of people for whom digital is as natural as breathing oxygen when the tools, models and practices of this world may be newer and more foreign to me? (spoken usually from the position of more traditional, legacy-based experience)
  2. Or, how do I lead people who just don’t get digital? (uttered by Xers and more recently Millennials who find themselves high in the organizational structure, leading teams of people potentially less digitally savvy and often older than they)

From the perspective of our research and teachings at the Institute for Personal Leadership, the answer to these opposite and complementary questions is the same: mindsets. Rather than grouping those who are leading and those who are being led in the digital realm by characteristics of generation, age, access, experience, savviness, comfort and so on; our experience and research show that if we begin to understand ourselves and others from the context of mindsets, many of the perceived barriers of “us vs. them,” “we vs. they,” and “know vs. don’t know” models can be eliminated.

Specifically, we work with two mindset frameworks: 1) Fixed vs. Growth mindset and 2) Knower vs. Learner mindset. Closely related, these two mindset models start giving leaders new freedom from any pre-existing notion of “who they are,” “unchangeable,” or “what they know,” and thus should be heeded.

In our live workshops, we often ask people in a silent poll to answer the question “ Is your character changeable?” and without fail we find that most participants believe that—unlike skill, knowledge and even intelligence—character is fixed, unchangeable, something that we just are. Which then leads to the introduction of the Fixed vs. Growth mindset framework, researched and articulated beautifully and extensively by Stanford’s renowned professor, Dr. Carol Dweck. We won’t cover this mindset in depth here, but note that it’s about opening leaders’ eyes (and beliefs) to the notion that both their intelligence and their character are changeable and open to continuous development, improvement and evolution.

Simply put, this transformative view is a powerful answer to the question: “ Yes, but this is how I am so how am I supposed to operate and lead in a world that is completely different than anything I’ve ever known before?”. By adopting a Growth mindset, our participants come to understand that “ how I am” is not fixed. Rather, it is an invitation to “ how I can be.

A bit more pragmatically, we find that helping people shift from a Knower mindset to a Learner mindset is an equally transformative leadership tool—a direct answer to questions 1 and 2 above. Revisiting those questions, we can now see that both have at their heart a Knower mindset, whether it’s expressed as “ I know this, they do not” or “ They know this, I do not.

Introducing leaders to the advantages of a Learner mindset, in which “ I know” is set aside, opens up many possibilities:

  1. To operate with curiosity
  2. To inspire personal growth
  3. To integrate new ideas
  4. To see collaboration as an opportunity, not a compromise
  5. To feel the excitement of “the new” again

In the big picture, shifting ourselves from “ I am fixed the way I am, and I worked hard to know everything I know” to “ I always have the opportunity to grow, and there is almost always something to learn here” is the ultimate destroyer of labels and divisions. We are no longer Millennials or not, Natives or not, Visitors or not. We cross the digitaldivide, as well as the divide of what we believe. We become better leaders, better teammates, better partners, better followers—in work, play and life.

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If you are an individual wanting to go on your own Personal Leadership journey with us, consider enrolling in our Master Class on Cultivating a Winner's Mindset related to the article above: