paper airplane with shadow rocket

Planting Seeds of the Growth Mindset

Editor’s Note: “Growth mindset.” Is it just the latest phrase pouring from the mouths of influencers and the unemployed as they post “Oh, I didn’t see you there!” videos on LinkedIn? Or is there a “there” there? Is there some science, is there some research, is there a reason we should take it seriously? More fundamentally, what is “growth mindset?”  I mean, besides the thing that gets Joey Social Media fired up while he’s walking along a river bank talking to his phone at an unreasonably high angle.

p.s. Yes, those videos bug me. Article on that to come.

 

During a recent dinner with a friend (who shall remain unnamed), I mentioned an article about growth mindsets that I had pitched a long time ago and never delivered (thanks for the nudge, Jeff). She was more intrigued than I expected, because her employer (who shall also remain unnamed) had inundated her and her coworkers with growth mindsets. As we enjoyed our mun thet tod and pak tay po, our conversation revealed many questions and misconceptions about what a growth mindset really is and how it could affect her work.

Given the migration of growth mindsets from the classroom to the cubicle, and my sense that some elements have been lost in that translation, I thought it would be useful to take a deeper dive into growth mindsets – what they are, what they are not, how they can impact your business, and what you can do about it.

What is a growth mindset?

If you’ve experienced growth mindset training, or have a child in school, or watch a lot of TED talks, you’re probably thinking something like this: a growth mindset is the belief that you can get better at things if you try. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is when you believe that you’re either born good at something or you’re not. Let’s consider a different definition that expands the scope of growth mindsets beyond skill acquisition and suggests the behavioral hallmarks of a growth mindset: the belief that efforts to change can be successful.

 

Let’s consider a different definition that expands the scope of growth mindsets beyond skill acquisition and suggests the behavioral hallmarks of a growth mindset: the belief that efforts to change can be successful.

What does this definition tell us about a person with a growth mindset? That person sees challenges as opportunities to improve, not as threats to their self-worth. Research on adolescents shows us that these individuals respond to failure by increasing their effort, adopting new strategies and asking for help. Those last two points are crucial: people with a growth mindset don’t just “try harder” by bullheadedly repeating the same mistakes, but instead willingly and gladly accept advice, engage in self-reflection, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

This definition also tells us that growth mindsets are not limited to learning skills like math or writing. For example, when people believe that our personalities and dispositions can change with effort, they’re more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt in ambiguous situations. This ‘incremental’ theory of personality also predicts lower stress levels and better overall health. So growth mindsets could not only make employees more productive at work but also more cooperative.

Growth mindsets could not only make employees more productive at work but also more cooperative.

What is NOT a growth mindset?

First, a growth mindset is not a singular trait. I, myself, have put forth great effort to improve my public speaking, yet struggle to imagine that I could ever sing well. My wife probably never expected to complete eight half-marathons (and counting), yet she can’t see herself ever being a good swimmer. I would contend that no one has a universal growth mindset; the degree to which we believe that efforts to change can be successful is unique to every skill, ability and trait.

Second, a growth mindset is not a rejection of genetics or innate ability. We all have strengths that will make improvement in certain areas easier, and we all have weaknesses that can make growth seem impossible. Nowhere in our definition of growth mindsets does it say that the amount of effort needed for successful change will be equal amongst all persons. But perhaps the most important tenet of a growth mindset is that your destiny is not written in your DNA.

Finally, a growth mindset is not a panacea for a toxic environment. Research on children to college students shows that an individual rapidly adopts a fixed mindset when the individuals who have power over them (e.g., parents, teachers, supervisors) have a fixed mindset. In the workplace, a fixed mindset most often creates an environment in which mistakes are harshly punished, leading employees to avoid risks and focus more on image than innovation. Under these conditions, no amount of growth mindset training will make a lick of difference. But on the flipside, a workplace that truly embraces a growth mindset—not just lip service—can modify the mindsets and behaviors of employees who initially believe that things never change. (For more details on this research, watch this handsome devil’s talk from the Forum on Workplace Inclusion [Editor’s note: The PeopleScience house rule is that only *I* can refer to myself as a “handsome devil,” but since I believe Ross can grow from this mistake, I’ll allow it]).

 

 

A growth mindset is not a panacea for a toxic environment.

Why is a growth mindset important in business?

Many of the benefits of a growth mindset are apparent on the surface: a company where people innovate without fear of screwing up or looking bad in front of the boss, and employees who work harder, cooperate with one another, and take on new challenges. But growth mindsets also influence workplace dynamics in unseen ways. Perhaps most importantly, growth mindsets have a role to play in increasing inclusion and diversity in the corporate world.

The most insidious of fixed mindsets is the belief that someone’s efforts to change won’t be successful because of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, body type and so on. Research has shown, therefore, that any type of fixed mindset in the workplace triggers fears among individuals from stereotyped groups that they will never be perceived as competent, therefore reducing their trust in the company. From recruitment onward, a fixed mindset can restrict the pool of underrepresented candidates and reinforce a workplace culture that excludes certain groups of people.

 

 

Growth mindsets have a role to play in increasing inclusion and diversity in the corporate world.

So how do I create a growth mindset at my business?

There are two keys to cultivating an environment in which people truly believe that their efforts matter. First, know that a growth mindset is not a seed to plant in each individual employee, but an idea to spread throughout the soil of the company. This means that growth mindsets must be well understood and earnestly embraced from the top down. The most apparent manifestation of a true growth mindset is that people are not lambasted when they make mistakes. It’s easy to preach growth mindsets when things are good – it’s when things go to hell that growth mindsets actually matter.

Second, recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Walking into an office full of unique individuals implies a company takes risks and innovates, whereas nothing screams fixed mindset quite like homogeny. A growth mindset lays the groundwork for achieving this goal, but that diversity will reciprocally help to reinforce the growth mindsets that you’ve infused into the work environment. When that snowballing takes hold is when growth mindsets move beyond a professional development topic and become foundational to your company culture.

 

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