The Four Modes of Thinking and How They Impact Performance

Robert Tucker

Robert Tucker

Driving Growth Through Innovation

Four Modes of Thinking

Hi there, this is your brain speaking. Just wondering what thinking mode you are operating in today?  Seems simple, but it’s important to know what’s going on up there. Success in today’s hyper-competitive world depends on what’s happening upstairs in that frontal lobe of your brain where problem-solving, creativity and other cognitive functions take place. Our research with thousands of managers and individual contributors throughout North America and in 48 countries suggests that we need three to four times as many ideas every day to perform at peak levels in our work. Anything less than a constant flow of ideas won’t be sufficient as we enter a future of constant change.

Fortunately, doing a quick, unannounced spot check on your thinking mode couldn’t be easier. Use the list below to identify which of the four dominant thinking modes you are operating in right now. Then check out the tips following on how to alter your thinking style.


This mental state is dominated by worry, frustration, and fear of what might go wrong. Guess what: we’re all thrust into this mode some of the time. It’s an inescapable part of the human experience. In Defeatist Mode, our monkey mind (as the Buddhists call it) feeds us all kinds of negative and unproductive chatter of the doom and gloom variety. We’re rehashing painful past events and replaying tapes of personal setbacks and sadness. We dwell on things we “could have, should have, and would have” done. Defeatist Mode is a negative use of the imagination. Our “idea factories” are shut down, and our idea-producing performance is stalled.


In this state of mind, we’re mostly “going through the motions,” sustaining the status quo. We incessantly check our devices. We multitask, and we grind it out – on autopilot. In Sustainer Mode, if an idea does happen to flutter into mind, we’re apt to ignore it or conjure reasons it will never work, or will be shot down by bosses, spouses or others. Our voice of judgment, that inner critic we all have to deal with, is temporarily in charge. “Ah, that will never work,” or “the boss wouldn’t go for that,” or “you’ve got way too much to do already, you can’t possibly find time to do something with that,” are all indicators of this frame of mind. From a performance standpoint, this mode is also an inevitable part of life. Many jobs are primarily about execution and following established policies, procedures and protocols. The downside of spending long periods in this mode is that it can deaden and diminish creativity, rather than causing us to challenge the status quo with game changing ideas.


If this is your mental state at present, give your brain a kiss! You’re on a performance path, at least as far as generating ideas is concerned. Something has stimulated these endorphins of possibility and it’s important to identify what. Perhaps you took a walk in nature, or had a pleasant conversation with an old friend who genuinely listens to you and is supportive. Maybe you got some good news that set you off in a positive direction. In Dreamer Mode, you come up with ideas easily and without too much effort —lots of them in fact. You have thoughts like: “wouldn’t it be great if.” Functional MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up when we’re in this state. We’re all here occasionally, enjoying that dopamine rush of feelings that the future is bright, and all is right with the world, if only for a little while.


In this mode, our idea factories are operating at peak performance levels. Opportunity Mode builds upon the Dreamer Mode, but there’s an added element: an action-taking component. You are not content just to hatch ideas – you have intention to make those dreams a reality. Since innovation is not only coming up with ideas, but also bringing them to life, the downside of Dreamer Mode is that we never execute, never really enjoy the rewards of accomplishing, or of performing at peak levels. When Martin Luther King told the crowd “I have a dream” from the steps of the Washington Monument, he wasn’t just fantasizing. This was the visual embodiment of a man in manifestation mode, and his speech changed the course of history. Opportunity Mode is a confident, positive, glass-is-half-full, can-do state of mind. Your attitude is of unbridled enthusiasm; you’re willing to try anything and everything until you succeed. Problems turn into opportunities. Obstacles are simply challenges to be overcome. The impossible just takes you a little longer.


As an innovation coach, a big part of my job is helping clients a) become conscious of their predominant mode, and b) learn techniques for consciously altering their mode (yes it’s possible to do this) to unleash the opportunity mindset. Here are four suggestions on how to take charge and shift modes:

  1. Check up on your mode of thinking frequently. The great personal development trainer and speaker Zig Ziglar used to recommend “a checkup from the neck up.” The most important dialogue you’ll have today is with yourself. As you drive home from work, ask yourself: What mode of thinking have I been operating in today? In recent days? What’s my self-talk been and why? What changes to your external environment might you make to coax you into Opportunity Mode more of the time?
  2. Take action on an idea. Take a look at your “things to do” list. Pick one out and make it happen! Action calms fear, cures inertia, and can alter a negative mindset. The satisfaction of accomplishing even a little task or eliminating an irritant, can lead to further action, feeding on itself in a virtuous cycle. There’s nothing more fun than striking through a task on the proverbial “to do” list and here’s why: it shifts your mental mode from Defeatist/Sustainer to Dreamer/Opportunity.
  3. Count to ten and win. To shift out of Defeatist Mode, literally count your blessings. List all the things in your life you have going for you: your friends, job, faith in a higher power, etc. To shift from Sustainer Mode to Opportunity Mode, invite yourself to come up with as many solutions as possible to a challenge or problem your currently face. Literally force yourself to summon from that part of your brain: What are ten ways you might address this problem? What are ten reasons why you’re happy to be alive? After you’ve proven to yourself that you can do this, consider how you might help others jumpstart their thinking and shift into performance enhancing modes.
  4. Let your Dreamer Mode come out to play. One of my favorite techniques is called WIBGI, which stands for “wouldn’t it be great if…?” To help yourself or your colleagues shift to a more visionary state of mind, invite people to weigh in with statements starting with: “wouldn’t it be great if” and vocalize whatever comes to mind. Wouldn’t it be great if we could eliminate this source of customer complaints once and for all? Wouldn’t it be great if we could halt company email after 6 pm and before 8 am? To use this technique, invite people to think about a customer irritant, a task, a policy, product, or procedure that is in need of an upgrade. Then take a step back and look at how doing this has shifted the predominant mode of thinking.

It’s very easy to fall into one of the less productive thinking modes without even being aware of it. It’s an inescapable part of human existence to sometimes operate from the Defeatist or Sustainer Modes. But in awareness there is power. Become self aware and identify when you’re in a negative mode and use the strategies above to shift. Opportunity Mode is what you’re in search of; it’s where productivity originates, performance is dramatically increased, and it’s where your ideas flow like a mighty river.

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