An understanding of one’s needs at work, and how these may differ across individuals, may help foster more positive working relationships

K. Jessica Van Vliet and José F. Domene

Author headshotsAt its core, most types of work involve interpersonal relationships. How people relate to their co-workers may reflect patterns of interpersonal relating that show up in other areas of people’s lives. Paul Gilbert (2009), one of the world’s leading experts on compassion, coined the term social mentalities as a rough way of classifying people’s ways of social relating. Social mentalities are types of mindsets that influence a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and that motivate people to act in particular ways toward other people. Among the core social mentalities identified by Gilbert are care giving, care seeking, competition and co-operation. After briefly summarizing Gilbert’s (1992) descriptions of these mentalities, we discuss the potential implications of social mentalities on work and career.

Social mentalities

Care giving: This mentality is characterized by a strong motivation to nurture other people’s growth and development. Feelings of pleasure and contentment come from supporting the well-being of others. With this mentality, a person is sensitive to other people’s distress and responds with caring and compassion. Providing others with comfort and protection in the face of potential harm may be a significant source of personal satisfaction.

Care seeking: On the flip side of care giving is care seeking. A person coming from this mentality may show an intense need for nurturance and protection from others. Anxiety, depression and other forms of distress may result from not having support close at hand. When support is available, the individual may experience a greater sense of security and contentment; from this place of increased security, a person is better able to focus on other goals.

Competition: This mentality is marked by a person’s preoccupation with how they rank in relation to other people. From this mentality, a person attends closely to signals of inferiority/superiority and winning/losing. Their assessment of where they stand in relation to others may at times lead to behaviours aimed at domination (i.e. emerging “on top” or winning). Alternatively, in order to avoid being attacked or rejected, a person may attempt to appease individuals who are regarded as being more powerful. The competition mentality is associated with a range of emotions, from anger, anxiety and resentment, to the excitement of winning.

 Co-operation: In contrast to competition, this mentality is concerned not with issues of social standing but with mutual trust, respect, belonging, sharing and appreciation. These qualities facilitate collaborative interactions aimed at achieving group goals. As with care giving, expressions of caring may be present. However, with co-operation, caring is typically mutual and helps to create a friendly, enjoyable work environment that promotes team success.

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Implications for career development

When applied to work and career, an understanding of social mentalities can be helpful both to individuals and to the organization as a whole. Social mentalities may provide a useful framework for informing career-related decisions. For example, a person who is highly motivated by a care-giving mentality might actively seek out opportunities to foster the growth of junior colleagues. A person with a competitive mentality might choose to work in an organization where competing for promotion and recognition is highly valued and encouraged. At an organizational level, awareness of the social mentalities that motivate different workers can help organizations better respond to workers’ needs and preferences. In addition, an understanding of how social mentalities influence social dynamics within the workplace may be used to enhance workplace culture.

Although most research on social mentalities has been in the area of mental health, in our program of research at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, we have been exploring how social mentalities may influence people’s career development and their experience of work. In one recent study where we qualitatively explored adults’ experiences of workplace caring, caring in the workplace had different meanings depending upon whether a person’s focus was on co-operation versus care giving and care seeking. For instance, someone coming from a care-seeking mentality might interpret caring as their supervisor’s commitment to the worker’s growth and development, or as the emotional availability of co-workers in times of personal distress. From other workers’ perspectives, caring might be more about friendly conversations and enjoyable social activities that serve co-operative goals.

In other words, when it comes to caring in the workplace, one size does not fit all. An understanding of one’s needs for caring at work, and how the meaning of workplace caring may differ across individuals, may help foster more positive working relationships. For organizations that strive to create a more caring work environment, it is important to consider what forms of caring would be beneficial, and for whom.

“In other words, when it comes to caring in the workplace, one size does not fit all.”

We are currently in the process of developing a questionnaire to measure people’s social mentalities in the context of work, along with a questionnaire designed to tap into people’s perceptions of the social mentalities in their workplace. The questionnaires may contribute to a deeper understanding of the influence of social mentalities on career development and well-being. In the meantime, we offer the following questions that career practitioners may find useful in discussing social mentalities with clients and stimulating their thinking about how this concept may relate to their careers:

  • Thinking about the four social mentalities, which mentalities seem to best describe me when it comes to how I relate to other people in my workplace?
  • How important is each mentality to me?
  • For those mentalities that reflect who I am or want to be, how does my workplace support me?
  • If there seems to be a mismatch between my preferred social mentalities and my workplace, what changes can I make in my own life/career or in my workplace?

It is also important to recognize that social mentalities can be quite fluid. They may become more or less active, depending upon the context. For example, someone may tend toward a co-operative mentality in working with peers but function from more of a care-seeking mentality with their supervisor. The person’s stage of career might also be relevant, with care seeking being more present early in one’s career, and care giving rising in importance in the later stages of career development. As we continue to learn more about how social mentalities influence work and career, workers and their supervisors may become better positioned to contribute to a healthy and harmonious work environment.

Dr. K. Jessica Van Vliet ( is a Registered Psychologist and Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Alberta. She has spent several years researching compassion in a variety of life domains. Most recently, she has extended her interest in compassion to the context of the workplace.

Dr. José Domene (, Registered Psychologist and Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary, has gained an international reputation for his career development research, which focuses particularly on the relational contexts of career.