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A Performance Mindset vs A Learning Orientation

In my work with senior executives, challenges can often emerge as a function of the client’s performance mindset. A performance mindset is a natural tendency to consider every task, project or request as a challenge to perform. To achieve. To accomplish. To win.

Of course, performing (and winning) come with benefits. From bonuses to titles to respect to power, we achieve and receive. Our careers progress. We are deemed “successful.”

And yet, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this competitive and extrinsically motivated approach.

What Happens When Things DON’T Go Our Way?

For ambitious, driven A-type executives, working with a performance mindset can come at a huge cost. For example, making a presentation in a defensive, performance mindset can mean that innocent questions or suggestions land like missiles. When we are performing and things don’t go our way, it can lead to dissonance and disappointment, even anger. Anxiety, tension and nervousness may increase which can contribute to health, relationship and personal issues.

A Learning Orientation

To counterbalance the extremes of a performance mindset, I ask my clients to consider a learning orientation—a tendency to see circumstances as opportunities to practice new skills, deepen knowledge, obtain insights and perhaps, even develop wisdom.

If my clients lean into learning, they can:

· BE CURIOUS instead of angry or confused about why things happened the way they did

· Remove themselves from the spotlight and SEE THINGS MORE OBJECTIVELY

· FOCUS on the people and systems at work around them

· STAY OPEN to different approaches

· BE LESS ATTACHED to outcomes

Obstacles to a Learning Orientation

Working with a learning orientation does not come without hurdles, however, ranging from the personal to the professional.

Identity: Much of “who” and “what” people are is based around title, position, credibility and results.

Perception: Taking charge and driving toward success is viewed positively.

External Rewards: Incentives are based on the ability to push for results and get things done.

Corporate Culture: Contemplative reflection is not consistent with the corporate drumbeat of meetings, KPIs, project timelines, deliverables and quarterly financial results.

Integrating a Learning Orientation

There’s always an element of an executive’s role that requires action and performance, of course. Senior executives need to deliver results for their teams, their bosses, their own customers and their organizations—that’s simply the bottom line.

But instead of choosing one style exclusively over the other, I suggest that my clients integrate a learning orientation into their existing performance mindset in a manner that still delivers significant and impactful short-term and long-term results. This mixed approach is echoed in the concepts of Chris Argyris’ Double Loop Learning Model and David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, the Action Learning approach to problem solving and the LEAN concepts of Plan-Do-Check-Adjust.

Benefits can include:


· Better future results through learnings that result from less focus on what the outcome was and more focus on why it happened

· Better quality of interpersonal interactions through less stress and more calm


· Better, devolved decision-making

· Better work culture

· Better, more sustainable results

That’s a whole lot of “better!”

Performing and learning do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the successful leaders, teams and organizations I work with consistently combine both concepts seamlessly despite the obstacles highlighted above. Integrating a learning orientation allows individuals and groups to develop quickly and efficiently, helping them grow to their fullest potential.

Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting ( A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.

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