My take on Mindset Tax in coaching

I recently wrote about “coaching tax” and suggested that we should focus on making sure we optimise our “time on task” when coaching, but I got the idea for a coaching tax from the concept of the “Mindset Tax.”

In this article I want to look at the difference between a mindset tax (the time spent not being able to grow) and a thinking trap (being trapped in your own unhelpful story or thinking pattern). Both are relevant to coaching and it helps to be aware of them.

Defining the term “mindset tax”

Mindset tax is the wasted time and frustration that is spent not learning from feedback

When coaching, we want people to gain new insights or commit to new actions. We want them to ask themselves great questions, see through their biases and accept feedback in a way that allows them to grow. This is not always what happens at the start of a coaching conversation though.

Sometimes people ask for feedback but really they want validation or they want to complain about something. A coach can validate people and also listen to people unleashing their frustrations in a safe environment. This is not really leading to growth, so it is not really the goal of coaching. However it may be a necessary step to allow someone to be ready to deal with something in a way that leads to growth. Hence we could say it is a “tax” or loss of thinking power on the way to growing.

In short, mindset tax is the resistance that someone has to learning from experience, feedback or coaching. It is the mental effort spent denying or stressing about feedback rather than learning from it.

In more detail

Coaches sometimes talk about having a growth mindset, or an agile mindset or an open mind. When we say things like this we mean that people should be open to the opportunity to grow and that they see feedback as a source of learning rather than a judgement about their ability or character.

Importantly though, nobody has a perfect growth mindset at all times around all issues. We all have a growth mindset in some areas, where we are open to feedback, love to be challenged and are willing to spend time and effort to improve. We also have other areas where we are not ready to receive feedback (having a closed mind or defensive attitude) or where we either believe that we are naturally good at something or naturally bad.

I know that I love doing jigsaw puzzles even though they frustrate me. Every breakthrough brings me closer to my goal (which is to stop needing to put the puzzle together). I see the struggle as a fun challenge. Sometimes I love help and sometimes I would prefer to sit by myself because I want to work it out on my own.

This can be a mixed blessing if I am at work and you are relying on me solving a “puzzle” though. Perhaps you have insights to share when I want to be left on my own to solve the puzzle. This might involve you getting my permission to receive your help. In coaching we call this “contracting” and it is an important first step to any coaching conversation.

If we are not aligned on whether (and how) I want you help or the help you plan to give me, then we are off to a bad start.

Once we agree that you will help me to solve my jigsaw puzzle, you can share observations and listen to my angst as I try to work things out. Our coaching conversation has begun.

But this is where Mindset tax comes in. You might ask questions and I might answer them, but I am saying what I think you want to hear (you suggest I start with the corners of the puzzle and I say you are really insightful, when what I really think is that I cannot find the corners and your comments are not helping). This wasted conversation is a “tax” on the coaching effort since it is wasting time that could be spent on helping me to solve my puzzle.

Specifically mindset tax is the effort we must spend to overcome my fixed mindset – the belief that I cannot change. Until we tackle my lack of belief that change is possible, it is unlikely that I will change. You will ask good open questions and I will give the answers that need to be given, while not learning.

Some examples of mindset tax

I have stolen the term “mindset tax” from people who coach teachers. It is generally used to refer to the “four horsemen of the fixed mindset (apocalypse) and you can get a good description of it here.

I think of it more broadly though so I have added a fifth horseman. Let me run through what I see as the chief distractors of coaching, or the common forms of mindset tax.

Should not want

One of the most common impediments to growth that I encounter when coaching is people thinking that I am there to help them with what they should be doing or should be better at.

People want to know “What is the Correct version of Scrum to apply here” or they don’t know how to influence executives to turn up for their meetings and want me to tell them how to do it.

There is a time for me to instruct people in how to do something, but that is not coaching. That is instruction, or process improvement or process adoption … or mindset tax.

It is mindset tax in two cases:

  1. I think I know better than you do how you should do your job. I start lecturing you or “coaching” you to be more like me.
  2. You are trying to do the right thing, as defined by others, rather than deciding what
    • You personally think the challenge or opportunity is for you to tackle;
    • What you would personally like to see happen; or
    • What you can learn from this.

In the first case, where I allow my ego act as a tax on our coaching, the solution is for me to move to a coaching stance (listen to understand, reflective listening, feedback based on observation etc). If I want to be a good coach then I need to develop good “tax minimisation” routines. That single concept is probably worthy of a whole book on coaching.

On the other hand, if I really do think that I know better than you and want to tell you what to do, then maybe I should not call it coaching, as such. It might be “performance coaching” in the way some HR people in Australian refer to the process of me setting clear expectations of your role and then you either agreeing to meet them or be fired from your job. It might be management or instruction where you are will to learn by doing what I tell you to do and then seeing if it works or it might just be me bossing you around.

Where you feel the need to meet my standards (or the expectations of your mother, or the expectation of being a Steve Jobs) then the answer if probably for me to use reflective listening and to help you see your own story clearly so that you can decide for yourself what to do with these expectations.

The four original horsemen

So, let’s get back to my jigsaw, or better yet to an area where I still fight having a fixed mindset. Let’s say that I want to get better at cooking (which I do) but that I truly suck as a cook (which I do). You offer to help me learn to cook and I am grateful for the help, though to tell you the truth I doubt I can actually become a great cook (which is not true but is a bias I have).

When you ask me about my cooking I use jokes to distract from the conversation because I have a fixed mindset. You help me to see this and we agree that I will cook while you observe and give feedback, both as I cook and as you eat the result of my cooking.

I start to cook a meat pasty, following the recipe. I look to you for advice by you say “I am coaching not telling” and I persist with a little nervousness.

I successfully cook some meat and vegetables in some pastry and it looks roughly like a pasty should look. Unfortunately it tastes a bit bland.

You could say “that is awesome and yummy – keep doing that” but that will not help me. Instead you say that you find it a bit bland and that maybe some more sauce would help or maybe some salt or something.

You are right – I suck

The first horseman of the fixed mindset is “you are right, I suck.”

In this case I would hear your feedback (this is bland) but would hear it as confirmation that I am a bad cook. I might reply that I really screwed up and that I always cook bland things.

This is an invitation for you to feed my doubt and spend the session trying to enable my whining. OR it is a chance for you to expose my mindset tax so that we can minimise it and get back to my goal of improving.

By listening and reflecting on what I say, you might help me a whole lot – paying off the tax and allowing us to focus on growth. This will happen even faster if we both understand the concept of mindset tax and can spot it quickly – then you can just call it out.

You are wrong – I rock

The opposite of deciding I suck at cooking because this pasty was a bit bland is to dismiss your feedback as wrong or irrelevant so that I can feel good about my cooking. Again – if I have a fixed mindset, your feedback is about whether I am a good or bad cook, not about whether my cooking of pasties can be improved so I can become a better cook.

I might say that I like bland pasties and that your taste is just different to mine. I might deflect to talk about how I got the pastry cooked well and that the shape was kind of pasty-like. These points might be things that I can build on, but I am raising them as a way to avoid confronting the blandness of the pasty.

Again you can listen reflectively to me or you can restate your feedback in different ways. This is, however, taking time away from a potential discussion of how to predict and reduce blandness, or how to add some more flavour. If we both know to watch out for this mindset tax then we can call it out, put it aside and consider the feedback you are giving on its own merits.

Blame it on the rain

At work, I often find myself being asked to coach “them.” By that I meant that the person I am coaching wants someone else to change or someone else to “just get it.” This might be fair enough, but it is a distraction from the discussion about how the person I am coaching might deal with the other people or behave in a way that changes the situation. I often remind people of this by saying that “They might (blah) but I cannot coach them if they are not in the room, I can only coach you. What is the challenge here FOR YOUY?”

More generally though, this is a case of “blame it on the rain.” This, our next horseman is where I blame an issue on one off circumstances or factors that are not in my control.

There is an element of truth in what I say – for example if it was raining then that might have impacted what I did.

In the case of my bland pasty, it might be true that I had a brand of “Worcestershire sauce” in my pastry. It might also be true that the oven was not a good one or that the vegetables that I was forced to use were a bit old. All of these might be true and I might blame them for the blandness of the pastry. However if I just say this to deflect from thinking about what I will do next time then I will not try something new and will not change.

When coaching, it is common to have people blame the rain (the workshop room, the group being tired, the sauce being bland) rather that question their own actions and contribution to the outcome. Similar to “I rock” they are discussing everything except the thing they could change.

I guess you know the solution here then – reflective listening and calling it out as an observation.

Optimist without a cause

The last horseman is one that sounds harmless and that I am often a victim of, but it is one that inhibits change and it relates to saying what I think I should say rather than thinking deeply about my cooking (or coaching)>

The optimist without a cause is the person who accepts that feedback or states their own insight and then says they will change, but has no plan to do so.

I might say that I agree that the pasty is bland and thankyou for the feedback.

“Next time,” I say, “I will add more flavour.”

Unfortunately though, I won’t. I have no plan for how to improve and I have not really decided to do anything. We can end out cooking session on a high note, but with no commitment to do anything concrete.

This is often where the coach needs to end the session, ensuring that the cook (coachee) has really absorbed the new insight, or committed to a new action or experiment. When you call out my optimism, you can then ask “so, what specifically could you do differently?”


Coaching is good and it is really rewarding. However, the people who most need coaching are generally the people who also have the best defenses to avoid change.

I like to discuss the concept of mindset tax with people (and teams) that I coach, so I can call it out when I see it and we can minimise it. Then, when coaching, I practice spotting the taxes as they appear.

If we can reduce these 5 things then growth will be faster (and I might move from bland pasties to decent pasties and even pies when I cook):

  1. “Should do” thinking versus “what I really want” thinking
  2. You are right – I suck
  3. You are wrong – I rock
  4. Blame it one the rain
  5. Optimist without a cause

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