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The next frontier in EX:
The role of employee mindset

Emma Bridger

03 Apr 2023
Employee Experience
Employee Engagement
EX Design

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Experiences don’t just happen to us. Our mindset plays a critical role in how an experience impacts us. Often EX, as a practice, has felt very ‘done too’ employees. But an individual’s mindset and personal responsibility has a key role to play, which is currently under-represented in EX design. This is not to abdicate the role of the organisation; it’s a given that companies should focus on designing experiences which help people to thrive. But, if all else is equal, and the company does all the right things, employees’ mindset will play a critical role in how they experience work.

The nature of experience

Let’s consider for a moment the nature of experiences. It is fair to say that many experiences are subjective. For example, pain is a subjective experience. Take the example of being stung by a wasp; the way we all experience this pain is subjective, no one else can measure or feel our pain in this respect. A subjective experience involves both emotional and cognitive components. An objective experience, however, is the actual event itself, such as the wasp sting.

Now let’s consider a work-based example. For your onboarding experience, you bring together a group of new starters for a day-long, face-to-face event. The introverts in the group may be apprehensive about the event, given it involves meeting lots of new people. At the end of the event, there may be some introverts who, on balance, report that it was a positive experience. Despite the fact they might have found some parts of the day uncomfortable, they appreciated the chance to meet new colleagues, they learnt more about the organisation, they had some fun and they were grateful to the company for running the event. Alternatively, other introverts might report that the experience was negative for them, focusing more on how they felt having to meet new people and being out of their comfort zone. The objective experience was the event itself, but different people will have different subjective experiences dependant on their individual mindset. In summary, our subjective experience is unique to us, given it is produced in our mind. This is why our personal mindset and psychology has a critical role to play in the overall EX.


What is fascinating is that our mindset doesn’t only influence how we feel about and interpret an experience, but it can actually change the outcomes of an experience as well. A study from Kirsch et al (1999) illustrates this, involving a group of blindfolded students who were told their arm was being rubbed with poison ivy. All of the students’ arms reacted with symptoms of poison ivy, however the plant used wasn’t poison ivy at all, but a completely harmless plant. Then, on the students’ other arm, the researchers rubbed real poison ivy, but told them it was a harmless plant. Even though all of the students were allergic, only a few of them came out in a rash. While this study is no longer considered ethical, it does demonstrate that the expectation of a positive outcome, or indeed a positive experience, makes it more likely to arise. This is referred to as “predictive encoding”. If we prime ourselves to expect a positive outcome, what we are doing is encoding our brain to recognise the outcome when it does in fact arise. This adds weight to the argument that your company reputation and your attraction and recruitment experiences are so critical. Great experiences at this stage raise the likelihood of employee expectations of a positive EX when they join.

The right mindset

But just how do you define the right mindset to support a better experience? While this question can’t be answered just yet, a study by Leadership IQ has revealed those traits required for ‘self-engagement’, which contributes to the right mindset for an enhanced EX. In their study of over 11,000 employees, they gathered insight on what they termed  ‘Self-Engagement ‘ (i.e. their optimism, resilience, proactivity, assertiveness, and ambition). Their model of self-engagement involves what they call 18 Outlooks, and, in summary, reflects the extent to which employees have personal control. The questions were designed to understand the role that employees themselves play, and included items such as:

  • I expect that more good things will happen to me than bad things
  • The tough times I’ve had in my career have helped me to grow and improve
  • I find something interesting in every task/project I do.

It’s no surprise that their findings demonstrated that mindset at work plays a significant role in the way we experience work and subsequent levels of engagement. What was interesting though was that the research found that often self-engagement is more critical than other engagement enablers such as the role of the line manager.

The research found the following elements all played a significant role in explaining engagement at work:

1. Optimism

The study found that having an optimistic outlook explains 30% of an employee’s inspiration at work. This finding makes sense when viewed through the lens of positive psychology. An optimistic mindset can protect against a downward spiral, as well as reduce levels of anxiety.

2. Having an internal locus of control

This is when an employee believes they control their successes and failures, and it is not down to luck but hard work. The study found an internal locus of control explained 26% of an employee’s inspiration at work. Again, this result is not actually that surprising: studies have demonstrated time and again and that people with a high internal locus of control experience more career success, better health, less anxiety and lower stress.

3. Resilience

Being resilient (e.g. coping well when things get tough), explained 25% of an employee’s inspiration at work. Resilience is a key skill for overall wellbeing, so it makes sense that it would play a role here. Being resilient means being able to bounce back from setbacks and cope when things don’t go the way you had hoped.

4. Being assertive

High assertiveness was found to explain 23% of a worker’s employee engagement. Being high in assertiveness means being able communicate effectively and clearly express needs, views, and boundaries. Research has found that assertiveness is often correlated with higher levels of self-esteem, and healthy assertiveness skills can even reduce conflicts and aggressiveness in the workplace.

5. Meaning in your job

Finding something interesting in the work you do explains 24% of an employee’s inspiration at work. People who find meaning in their work are more inspired and more likely to stay with their employer, more likely to give their best effort at work, and more likely to recommend their employer to others.

Developing the right mindset

The great news here is that these elements can all be developed and taught - they are not fixed. Developing these attributes will positively influence the experience employees have at work. In summary, employees can be supported to develop the right mindset and self-engagement which will positively impact the experience they have.

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