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The Four Human Desires that Undermine Great Managers

This article was based on episode 114 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Be entered to win a free collective mindset report when you become a member at by September 1, 2020.

It’s rare that I come across a manager who is intentionally cruel to their people. On occasion I hear about a tough boss, a manager who ‘doesn’t get it’, and the occasional leader whose mental health I question. Yet according to leadership consultant, professor, and researcher Ryan Gottfredson, sixty percent of employees report that their direct manager damages their self esteem. Why, despite altruistic motives of most managers, are so many failing to nurture their employees in an empowering way?

According to Ryan’s latest book, Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership, the problem - and the solution - is found in our mindset.


Ryan defines mindset as the mental lenses we wear that shape how we see the world around us. How we view the world then shapes how we think, learn, and act. To demonstrate the power of mindset, Ryan provides an example of witnessing homeless people on the street. A person with a judgmental mindset might think, “They need to get their lives together” compared to an empathetic one, “They are doing their best, yet still struggling”. Depending on which mindset we have, we will think and behave differently towards the plight of homeless people we encounter.


As managers, four self-protecting desires may inadvertently affect the way we act towards our team. These common but unhelpful cravings undermine our ability to be effective managers because they shift our focus from thinking about our employees to ourselves. These desires include the desire to look good, be right, avoid problems, and get ahead.

When work becomes about us rather than our team or the outcome that we're striving towards, we run into problems. We become so focused on doing what's best for us that we are less sensitive and attuned to the people that we are leading. Most often, when an employee feels mistreated, it’s because the manager is looking after his own self interest rather than those of the team or team member.


From the last thirty years of research on mindsets, Ryan identifies four distinct types of negative mindsets that align with the four self-protecting desires identified above. The negative mindsets are fixed, closed, prevention, and inward. Our goal is to shift from negative desires that keep us stuck in negative mindsets, to positive desires that align with positive, empowering mindsets of growth, open, promotion, and outward.

For example, rather than having a desire to look good, we should have a desire to learn and grow, which may mean that we have to look bad in certain circumstances because we learn a lot through failure.

Instead of wanting to be right, we should want to find truth and think optimally, which may mean that we have to be wrong.

Instead of wanting to avoid problems, we should seek to reach our goals which may mean wading through some problems in order to get there.

And instead of wanting to get ahead, we should want to lift others, which may mean that we have to put ourselves on the back burner for a moment or two.

By choosing a positive, open mindset rather than focusing on negative self-protecting desires, we effectively embrace vulnerability. We become willing (at times) to look bad, be wrong, have problems, and get passed up. Leading through vulnerability allows us to create a psychologically safe work environment. As others experience our vulnerability, their need for self protection will also decline.

When managers aren’t able to sit with vulnerability, they develop the command and control style of leadership. This causes internal conflicts for team members who are unhappy or not supported appropriately, but don’t feel comfortable expressing their needs or concerns.


When things aren't going smoothly at work, fears and negative mindsets are often guilty for throwing up blocks and resistance to our progress. Unless we can identify our underlying negative mindsets, they will continue to wreak havoc on whatever it is that we're doing. To harness this mindfulness, Ryan developed a four-part exercise.

  1. Identify a goal that is meaningful for you and that you have control over.

  2. Ask yourself: what am I currently doing or not doing that is preventing me from accomplishing that goal?

  3. Explore why you are acting in this way. What fears, commitments, and/or assumptions are influencing your actions?

  4. Identify the underlying mindset - fixed, closed, prevention, and/or inward - of these fears, commitments, and assumptions? Think about what desires - to look good, be right, avoid problems, and get ahead - might be associated with your actions.

To help you better understand your mindsets, Ryan offers a free personal mindset assessment on his website, More than 10,000 people have already completed the assessment and only five percent have qualified in the top quartile for positive mindsets. It’s clear that most of us have a ways to go.

Go forward with a new awareness of and appreciation for the importance of mindset. Know that when your foot is hitting the pedal, trying to move your team towards its goals, your mind may be full of self-protecting desires. These subconscious fears pump the brakes to resist progress. It’s time to take full control. When you change your mindset into a more vulnerable, open, growth mentality, you are able to truly support your team as individuals and as a whole while being your best self.



Be entered to win a free collective mindset report when you become a member at by September 1, 2020.

This article was based on episode 114 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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