Leadership Reflections & Pointers

Do you have a ‘Growth Mindset?’

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Every decade or so a body of research comes along that impacts pretty much everything I do and think. Discovering the idea of the ‘growth mindset’ has been like that. It is a simple concept that, at least for me, has removed a whole lot of limitations I didn’t even know were there.

Evidence is steadily growing that having a growth mindset allows people to [i] :

  • respond to difficulties as a challenge (rather than a threat) and therefore focus on solutions
  • respond to feedback much more positively and constructively
  • perform better the harder the task or context gets (up to a point)
  • extend themselves more and develop faster
  • achieve better performance in themselves and in those they manage

The research, begun by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, finds that people can either have a fixed or a growth mindset about any area. Take being ‘intelligent’ for example. Up until recently, most of us believed that our level of intelligence was ‘fixed’. Now we can see that this is not really the case; in fact we see two different camps:

People with a fixed mindset believe that they are as smart as they are ever going to be. If their intelligence is something they are particularly proud of, they tend to focus on maintaining this perception for themselves and others. If they see themselves as not particularly intelligent, they are inclined to give up easily.

People with a growth mindset on the other hand deeply believe what turns out to be supported by research; that the brain is ‘neuroplastic’, and can be made to grow when subjected to work, good learning strategies and help from others. For these people, not knowing or not being able to do something well becomes an opportunity to better themselves and a comfortable place to be.

This is demonstrated in a wonderful piece of research where people were given a general knowledge quiz while having their brains monitored. If they got a question wrong the correct answer would appear on the screen. Brain scans showed that the fixed mindset people’s attention was directed inward – they were trying to deal with their emotional response to getting it wrong. Those with a growth mindset however turned their attention outward to the correct answer. Unsurprisingly those people did much better on a surprise retest [1]!

What makes these insights incredibly useful is that it is not difficult to change from a fixed to a growth mindset – both in individuals and even in organizations (which, it turns out, have a ‘mindset’ too). In fact, simply understanding the science and then being mildly self-aware is often all that is required.

So how can we use these concepts in organisations?

Many of the world’s large multinationals are seeking to adopt a growth mindset across their organization. This involves introducing leaders and staff to the concepts and – to the extent possible –then aligning processes and incentive schemes to encourage ‘striving for awesome’ rather than ‘trying to be awesome’. In practice, this often means:

  • focusing on improvement over time rather than relative rankings.
  • being solution-focused rather than problem-focused.
  • praising the effort made, the strategies adopted and the use of other people around you – rather than putting emphasis only on the outcome.

The aim for individuals (and organizations) should be to shift the balance between fixed and growth mindset rather than trying to adopt a growth mindset in everything all the time.

The simplicity of the concept and its compelling research makes adopting more of a growth mindset something that should be easy to spread. I hope you, like me find this removes some restrictive and self-limiting views and opens you up to new possibilities.

Good luck!


[1] Dweck, C., Mangels and others, 2006, Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Oxford Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Vol 1, Issue 2 75-86
[i] Halvorsen, H., Cox, C & Rock, D Organisational Growth Mindset, Neuroleadership Journal, Volume 6, January 2016

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