The implications of mindsets and primal world beliefs (primals) for leaders

The implications of primal world beliefs (primals) for leaders

Discovering your primal world beliefs (primals) is a new and fascinating area of research into mindsets. Leaders who take the time to understand their own worldview, and appreciate the differing worldview of others, are better positioned to create success for themselves and others, and foster connectedness and harmony within teams.

Much of what we become in life – much joy and suffering – may depend on the sort of world we think this is.                                                                                                                                       ~ Clifton et al., 2019

Nothing you do happens by accident. A choice you make is the result of a thought, a feeling and then, finally, the action you take. Whether it’s ordering your usual coffee or choosing where to live, your mindset is always ‘on’.

But have you ever wondered why you do certain things or think in the way you do?

It all comes down to your mindset. An established set of attitudes and beliefs you’ve held in your life so far.

But, just because your mindset is established, doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Mindsets can be changed.

Awareness is the first step…

Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature. ~ Dr. Carol Dweck, 2014

leadership mindset

Your mindset in action

A mindset is a lens or frame of mind through which you view the world. These lenses help you make sense of things, by simplifying and organising the large amount of information you need to process in any given moment.

Mindsets cover many areas of your life, including work and relationships. They aren’t just a reflection of reality; they serve to interact with your reality and can shape it in self-fulfilling ways.

Mindsets tip off a cascade of psychological and physiological effects on attention, arousal, motivation and affect.

For example, one study conducted with hotel housemaids showed the impact a change in mindset can cause.

The cleaners were on their feet all day, doing physical work. When they were encouraged to change their mindset from seeing this activity as ‘just work’ to seeing it as ‘good exercise’, after four weeks they had lost weight, their blood pressure went down and their body image and job satisfaction went up.


They were able to change their mindset (their established beliefs and attitudes about the activity they were carrying out). Once their mindset had been changed, their behaviours followed and so did their physical improvements.

Understanding your primal world beliefs, and those of others, is an important step in creating connectedness for leaders.

leadership mindset

Mindset is everything

There is growing evidence that our mindset affects outcomes in a variety of life domains, including:

Intelligence – whether we believe we can work towards being smarter or if we are just born that way, i.e. a fixed vs growth mindset (Dweck, 2008).

Ageing – whether our positive beliefs about getting older have beneficial physiological/psychological outcomes (Levy & Myers, 2004).

Response to stress – whether stress can have a positive impact on us (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013).

There is also evidence to suggest that changes in our subjective mindsets can alter our objective reality through behavioural, psychological and physiological mechanisms.

Mindsets in action: example of a stress mindset

Stress is universally seen as a negative thing in most cultures.

I’m too stressed to enjoy life.”

I can’t think straight, I’m so stressed about the exam.”

He’s taking time off work for stress.”

Companies around the world are facing an ongoing battle with workplace stress and its impacts; the American Institute of Stress estimates that job stress costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.

Closer to home, a Victorian Health study estimated, as much as 40 per cent of employee turnover and 60 per cent of absenteeism is caused by workplace stress and stress-related illnesses.

leadership mindset

Is there such a thing as good stress?

However, the emerging body of research on mindsets suggests that one way to meaningfully influence our body’s stress response is to change an individual’s mindset about stress.

Stress mindset is the extent to which you believe that stress has enhancing consequences for various stress-related outcomes i.e. a ‘stress-is-enhancing mindset’.

Or, a ‘stress-is-debilitating mindset’- where you believe that stress has debilitating consequences for performance and productivity, health and wellbeing, and learning and growth.

Research by Alia Crum and colleagues at Stanford (2013) suggests that mindset significantly shapes your stress response; that it is related to perceived health and life satisfaction. They also suggest that individuals who have a stress-is-enhancing mindset show more adaptive physiological responses and more approach-oriented behavioural responses in the face of stress.

Specifically, the research participants who rated themselves as having a stress-is-enhancing mindset experienced moderate cortisol reactivity and were more receptive to feedback than those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset when exposed to an acutely stressful situation. Research also shows that we can change our stress-is-debilitating mindset and that doing so improves self-reported health and work performance.

Importantly, a shift in stress mindset doesn’t mean that you have to see all stressful situations as good. Instead it is about noticing the opportunities for learning and growth as you try to cope with challenging and difficult situations.

Rather than an exercise in positive thinking, it is about holding the possibility that stress can be good for you and taking a more balanced view so that you fear it less, feel more able to cope and can use it as a resource to learn, grow and engage with life on a whole new level.

Want to measure your stress mindset?

By spending a few minutes answering these eight simple questions used by Alia Crum and her research team, you can gain a better understanding of your own current stress mindset.

leadership mindset

Going deeper – Primal world beliefs (primals) for leaders

What sort of world is this?

Ground-breaking new research into Primal World Beliefs (Primals) looks at our gut response to this question. Someone who holds the belief that the world is safe, enticing and getting better will have a very different mindset to someone who believes the world is dangerous, meaningless and getting worse.

Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse. ~ Dr. Alia Crum, 2014

These varying mindsets will also have an impact on the actions people take based on their beliefs of the world around them. We can also see how this might impact us all at work, at home and in business if two people with opposing primals try to resolve an issue, make an important decision or take decisive action.

Understanding your primals 

Once you understand your own primals (and you can discover yours by taking this short and simple free survey), you will gain new insight into your beliefs about the world.

Also, primals for leaders will be a useful way for you to better understand those around you.

The primals inventory measures just one of the many primals humans hold. The most important one: Good.

An example of Primals – Good versus Bad

Good is the main ‘umbrella’ belief about whether you see the world as a good or bad place. Those with very low Good scores tend to see the world as dangerous, ugly, meaningless, barren etc. They don’t see their own pessimism as who they are, but just a smart response to the seemingly dangerous world around them.

Conversely, those with a high Good score will see the world as beautiful, amazing, fascinating and safe. They see their optimism as common sense. Higher Good scores are also indicative of people who have a generally high satisfaction with their life, their wellbeing, their gratitude etc.

leadership mindset

There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields. ~ Dr. Richard Reeves, 2014

Good is the umbrella primal and, out of 22 basic primal world beliefs, 17 can be grouped together into three: Safe, Enticing, Alive. These are the main things optimists see when they look at the world. While the primal belief of Alive was important, Safe and Enticing are the main focus of seeing the world as Good.

We have always more goods than evils in this life. ~ René Descartes, Letter to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, 1645

Those with low Good scores think being optimistic is naïve – and the only alternative is pessimism.

For some who score extremely low, they may not even see the point of the world’s existence.

It’s a sad world we live in. ~ Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, c.a. 1000

leadership mindset

Is a Good primal, a sign of a good life?

In a nutshell, yes. But of course, there is always more to the story than that.

When people are in a positive mindset, we would expect them to act in a certain way. The same goes for people who see things in a negative way.

Good is linked to psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction, curiosity, optimism and physical health.

On the other hand, low Good scores (seeing the world as dangerous, ugly etc.), are linked with depression and other mental health issues.

It might also be easy to assume that anyone with a high Good score has to have a certain level of material wealth or stability to be able to see the world in such a way. But this isn’t the case. A person’s income and their Good score are somewhat related, but the relationship is very small. It’s also conceivable that someone experiences more professional success due to their overall outlook on life.

leadership mindset

Either way, there is so much more to be studied and learnt. The research carried out by the primals research team (which includes Dr Alia Crum, Dr Carol Dweck, Dr Alan Fiske, Dr Rob DeRubeis, Dr. James Pawelski, Dr. Crystal Park, Dr. Paul Rozin Dr. Richard Reeves, Dr. David Sloan Wilson, Dr. Chandra Sripada) is just scratching the surface on this fascinating area of psychology.

Implications of mindsets and primal world beliefs (Primals) for leaders

Mindsets and primal beliefs fundamentally influence the way that we interpret the world. Effectively they are the lens through which we see everyone and everything that we experience and shape the story we tell ourselves to make sense of it. Because of this they can be a powerful source of unconscious bias.

By definition, we are unaware of unconscious beliefs. However, this is where their power lies as we believe we are acting in line with our conscious intentions, when in fact our unconscious is in the driver’s seat. Cognitive neuroscience research has taught us that most decisions we make, especially regarding people, are “alarmingly contaminated” by our biases. Our assessments of others are never as objective as we believe them to be.

An important point for us to be aware of as leaders.

leadership mindset

Questions for leaders to ask

Here are a few questions to help you understand your mindsets and primal beliefs. Surfacing these can help you develop awareness and understand how might they be may be feeding unhelpful unconscious biases:

  • Do you believe people are inherently good or bad?

Leaders who believe that people are inherently bad may unconsciously have a lack of trust in others’ motivations and behaviours. They see people as a problem to be solved rather than capacity and opportunity to be realised.

  • Do you believe intelligence is fixed or developable?

Leaders with an ‘intelligence is fixed’ mindset have been shown to have a more fragile sense of confidence in their ability, are less likely to take on stretch goals and avoid feedback. (Dweck, 2010)

  • Do you believe that conflict is positive or negative?

Leaders with an agile mindset, who are able to appreciate a diverse range of opinions that may be very different from their own, recognise that conflict and difference in opinion – when managed effectively – can add value to discussions and promote better outcomes.

I can help individuals and teams to understand how their mindsets affect their leadership and how to leverage this awareness and knowledge to improve personal and professional success.

Connect with me today to learn more. 

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.