The Power of Open-Mindedness

Questioning may be better than willing as a condition for positive and sustainable personal (or, by extension, organizational) change, according to research by psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Wray, Herbert. “The Willpower Paradox.” In Scientific American Mind, July/August, 2010; 66-7).

Senay’s experiments measured the performance and assessed the attitudes of subjects who used self-talk before executing prescribed tasks.  Those primed with the phrase, “Will I?”, consistently out performed those primed with the phrase, “I will.”

This finding suggests–somewhat counter intuitively–that an inquisitive or open mind leads to greater success than a determined, willful, and goal-oriented mind.  “Those [experimental subjects] asserting will lacked…internal inspiration, which explains in part their weak commitment to future change” (67).

This has predictive implications for culture shaping: initiatives relying on sheer willpower, and especially those where the force of will is external, are likely to fail or fail to achieve any meaningful sustainability.

On the other hand, as Senay hypothesized, questions “speak to possibility and freedom of choice.  Meditating on them might enhance feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation, creating a mindset for success” (67).

Consider the difference between “I (or we) will increase the value of our product or service to customers” and “How will we…?”  The former expression, noble as it may appear, invokes directed, goal-oriented will; the latter creates an open space for self-motivated discovery, growth and, according to Senay’s findings, a greater likelihood for success.

Do you have examples from your growth leadership experiences that mirror these experimental findings?


Organizational Psychology: “Putting the mind to work at work.”

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2 Responses to The Power of Open-Mindedness

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