Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck broke ground with her research on “mindset” — what she called “the new psychology of success.” In her book detailing her research into the effect mindset has on our lives as humans, Dweck highlights two starkly contrasting views of potential. Dweck posited a “fixed mindset” as one that assumes our traits are largely established ‘givens’ held to a fixed standard that measure objective success or failure of our talents and skills. Dweck states that one of the two mindsets is manifested at an early age and affects a great deal about the way we go about life, including the way we work.
About the fixed mindset, Dweck writes:
“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?…”
A “growth mindset,” alternatively, is one that says the traits one has are not a ‘hand’ one is ‘dealt,’ but one that can be improved upon, transformed, and cultivated. Dweck proposes that a growth mindset encourages taking on new challenges with the belief that we can nurture and chafe against our given traits with experience and effort.
Someone with a growth mindset, for example, sees failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, while someone with a fixed mindset may feel defeated by not meeting expectations. Contrasting the two mindsets, Dweck writes:
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.
Companies can have a proverbial “mindset” as well. Companies with fixed mindsets typically have a few rockstar employees, but overall lower commitment from a workforce plagued by fear of failure in an organisational culture that does little to foster, or actively even discourages, the idea of “fail early and often” that can promote innovation within teams. Companies with a growth mindset are typically rated more innovative and collaborative overall as a result of empowering employees to seek new opportunities to learn and challenge themselves.
Leaders who want to “tap into” the benefits of growth mindset must lead by example and learn to recognise and reinforce effort, rather than results, to shape a culture that reflects a growth mindset. Start by challenging and noting symptoms of a permeating fixed mindset where fear of failure is thriving among employees and leaders alike. When leaders set an example through growth-minded language as they notice the challenges facing the organisation as a result of inflexibility, the organisation begins a slow and sustainable transformation to one outfitted for growth. When employees see it’s OK to show they’re developing, which means they’re not perfect in that area, they’ll feel safer embracing developmental opportunities.
By recognising personal growth and effort and not simply achievement and talent, the organisation can foster a safer space to create and challenge boundaries of work. When employees are encouraged to innovate and take ownership of their work in a proactive way, engagement becomes intertwined with personal growth. Employees who discover innovation and hard work are rewarded can transform organisations for the better.