Leadership in Action – Can You Recognize the Difference Between Limiting and Liberating Beliefs?

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Guest Contributor: Dr. Amy Young University of Michigan, Center for Positive Organizations


Leaders play a key role in shaping employees’ behaviors and performance by setting workplace expectations. Mindsetting is when leaders are purposeful in how they shape these expectations with the goal of establishing a mindset, a set of beliefs, conducive to optimal performance. Yet it is not obvious which beliefs actually limit performance and which liberate it. Research on the psychological mindset associated with flourishing provides clues to differentiating the two.

Employees bring to the workplace their own pre-established beliefs from previous experiences and past socialization. That said, they are also quick to adapt to the expectations of a new workplace. Recently onboarded employees know that their success requires them to pay close attention and adapt to the “unwritten rules” about what is valued and rewarded in the new organization. While employees may pay close attention to their coworkers to learn the rules, they know that it is the leaders who determine what is expected and what is rewarded. Leaders who are fully aware of their power to influence employees in this way, and take the time to be purposeful in setting the expectations, have a clear advantage over those who are leaving it to chance.

Effective Mindsetting begins by understanding the difference between workplace expectations that limit performance and workplace expectations that liberate performance. This is trickier than one might expect. For example, all leaders want to set high standards of excellence in the workplace to encourage employees to be conscientious about their work. Yet some approaches to setting high standards can actually hinder workplace performance in the long run by inhibiting employees’ initiative, creativity, and innovation. If leaders hold high expectations and have a low or zero tolerance for failure, they create a workplace where employees act only if they know that they will not fail.

Key here is setting high expectations and maintaining an appropriate tolerance for failure. What is appropriate? For some industries, such as healthcare or nuclear science, failure is catastrophic and can lead to loss of life. For other industries, such as technology, failure is far less calamitous. In fact, a low tolerance for failure may pose a greater risk toward falling behind in a fast-paced industry. Thus, leaders need to constantly weigh the cost and rewards of risk tolerance and be explicit with employees about the expectations and rationale behind them.

While leaders need to -recognize consistently the subtle nuances of shaping workplace expectations, research from the science of optimal performance can help us differentiate those beliefs that limit human capabilities from those that liberate them.

Indeed, a defining feature of limiting beliefs is their reduction of our cognitive, emotional, and relational resources. When there is a threat to one’s physical well-being or self-worth, our attention quickly narrows to focus specifically on the threat, which leaves fewer resources to notice other stimuli or to attend to the task at hand.[1] For our ancestors, this response was key to keeping them alive. Whether it was having a heightened sensitivity to tigers quickly approaching in the bush, or a heightened sensitivity to being rejected from the clan, being overly reactive to threats was key to survival.

Today, we continue to be hypervigilant to possible threats to our self-worth and social standing.  We are particularly apt to see this hypervigilance in the workplace, given that it is a context where our performance is continually being evaluated. Not having our proposal accepted by a client, being misunderstood in a meeting, or having a colleague disregard our comment are all scenarios that can evoke a sense of unease, if not an outright wound to our sense of worth.

Limiting beliefs have a subtle yet powerful impact on all aspects of work life. If employees perceive their workplace as potentially posing a threat to their self-worth, they may approach it with caution or apprehension – a “wait and see” strategy. For example, they may wait for direction before starting a project, limit their actions to only what they are capable of, just agree with others to fit in, or approach others with caution. Alternatively, they may feel the need to aggressively promote and defend their work, point out why others are wrong, or succeed even at the expense of their peers. These two styles mimic the “fight or flight” response, reminding us that we have much in common with other mammals in the animal kingdom.

Common among liberating beliefs, on the other hand, is their ability to expand our mental, emotional, and relational capabilities. When we enter an alert yet relaxed mental state, our cognitive capacity expands, as we are more apt to see alternative possibilities rather than maintaining a narrow defense of our own views. Likewise, we are more receptive to others, have more positive emotions, and are more resilient to setbacks.[2]  Not surprisingly, the single most important characteristic of high performing teams is psychological safety.[3] This provides a social context that allows employees to fully utilize their cognitive, emotional and relational capabilities.

Whereas limiting beliefs exemplify the worst of humanity, liberating beliefs exemplify the very best we have to offer. In this state, we focus on the reasons why a new plan can work, seek opportunities to grow, and maintain an optimistic outlook that helps us override setbacks along the way. We still attend to mistakes, but the goal is not to find fault but to find ways to improve performance going forward. We carry this open, expansive mindset to how we engage others.   Rather than be on guard, we actively take time to listen to others, share information to help them succeed, and recognize their contributions.


[1] Derakshan N, Eysenck MW. Anxiety, processing efficiency, and cognitive performance: New developments from attentional control theory. European Psychologist. 2009 Jan;14(2):168–76.

[2] Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press.

[3] Edmonson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.