The Change We Need?

As Barack Obama is taking office today, the core message in his presidential campaign has kept me thinking: Change…We’ve all heard the saying “The only constant is change”. But have you ever thought about if you really believe that?

In other words: Do you believe people can change; or do you believe people can do things differently, but they cannot change the basic qualities/attributes they have? Social psychologists refer to these beliefs as ‘theories of change’: incremental theory – a belief that our traits are flexible, and entity theory – a belief that our traits are fixed.  Most of the time we don’t question or even are aware of our beliefs about change, however these beliefs make a difference in how we lead our lives.

Take a moment now, and remember the last time you said to yourself: “This is the way I am – fill-in-the-blanks: introvert, impulsive, not smart, stubborn…. – and there’s not much I can do about it.”

Why is it important to know which theory of change you have? Because your mind-set influences

1. if you are willing to put effort in change,
2. if you see the potential for improvement,
3. and even, if you feel the responsibility to change.

The entity mind-set gives a sense of stability – it becomes easier to predict how people will behave – and we like predictability. But it undermines the capacity to change – one feels stuck with what she has and doesn’t see the need to put effort to change. The incremental mindset in turn, opens up the possibility to change, together with the responsibility to change.

What are the implications for internationals, expatriates and their families? Here’s a scenario:

You’re about to move to a new country. You believe you are the kind of person who is shy, not curious about other cultures, and not particularly gifted with languages.

First imagine how you would feel about the move if you believe those traits are fixed… Have you felt the anxiety yet?
How about if you believe those traits are flexible, and you have a dynamic personality? Doesn’t sound as stressful anymore, or?

One core belief can dramatically impact your motivation, your feelings and your behaviors! Don’t you think it’s worth reflecting on the question: Do you believe in fixed traits or do you think people can change?

(For more on Entity versus Incremental Theories, see the work of   Dr. Carol S. Dweck)

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