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Are You Getting Growth Mindset Wrong?

An interview with Carol Dweck.

Does your organization have a growth mindset? Cultivating a growth mindset—the belief that your talents can be improved with learning and effort—has become a popular goal for many workplaces as studies suggest it helps employees to feel more empowered and committed and more likely to deliver on collaboration and innovation outcomes. But with all the buzz surrounding this practice, are we actually creating false growth mindsets?

“Everyone is actually a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets,” explained Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of the bestselling book Mindset, when I interviewed her recently. “A pure growth mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek.”

It seems that we all have fixed mindset triggers that can cause us to fear that our talents are innate gifts that can't really be improved upon. In these moments, your fear of struggling or fear of failing to deliver the outcomes you feel are expected of you can cause you to shy away from new challenges, find negative feedback painful to hear, and deny your mistakes.

“Fixed mindsets cause you to choreograph what you should or shouldn’t try, and what you should or shouldn’t show others,” explained Carol. “They create a fear of your deficiencies being unmasked and of people seeing you as an imposter.”

Carol has found that when organizations cultivate fixed mindsets, outcomes become paramount, and doing anything we can to achieve the required result seems warranted. This can lead to a lot of unethical behavior, including hoarding resources (even from our teammates), lying to our colleagues and clients, and blaming others when things don’t go right. But perhaps the biggest risk in these cultures is that we tend to ignore, avoid or abandon the potentially valuable learning opportunities that enable our growth and innovation.

In contrast, when we are in more of a growth mindset we believe that our talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, the use of resources, and lots of great mentoring from others. We don’t necessarily believe that anyone can be Albert Einstein, but we do believe that we can improve on where we are right now. As a result, we may be more willing to take on new challenges, listen to negative feedback, and own mistakes because we see these as learning opportunities.

In fact, Carol’s research indicates that organizations with more of a growth mindset—where there’s a shared belief that everyone can develop their talent, encouragement for risk-taking, and a real emphasis on learning and development from setbacks and failures—also tend to be more creative and innovative.

But where might growth mindsets go wrong?

Carol suggests that while effort is important, unproductive effort is not, and outcomes still do matter. So ignoring outcomes and just rewarding effort, regardless of whether your hard work is getting results or not, isn’t good for you or your organization. You still need to continuously check that the progress on projects is getting you to where you need to be, in a reasonable time, and that your investment in time and energy will pay off in the short or long term.

“So when organizations cultivate a growth mindset culture, people are learning from their successes and their failures, and continuing to revise, upgrade, improve that process so that over time the outcomes are better and better,” says Carol. “And when you focus on this process, you become the creator of the future rather than a company that’s always rushing to play catch up.”

How do you develop a true growth mindset?

Carol shares five insights from her close work with Microsoft and other large organizations.

  • Look for learning opportunities. Every day, look for both what you can learn and how you can help others around you to learn. As a leader, you can often get caught in the trap of thinking about how you need to teach and advise others, but everyone you work with has something they can teach you—perhaps it’s a new approach or a fresh perspective.
  • Become comfortable with failure. If you feel like everything you do has to be a success, you may be stifling innovation and creativity by not trying new things or taking risks. Know that the worse that can happen if you fail is that you’re going to discover that you’re human and you’re learning just like everybody else. Find ways to make failure and struggle the norm, be prepared for multiple attempts to get the result you’re looking for, share your struggles with others, and seek help or mentoring when you need it. For example, some of the organizations Carol works with reward fabulous struggles or failures—unsuccessful projects that are milked for every ounce of learning, and where the lessons are incredibly valuable for the organization.
  • Practice self-compassion. No matter how much you embrace a growth mindset, and believe that your talents can be developed, certain situations and people may still trigger your fixed mindset. It might be when you’ve made a mistake, especially if it’s a public mistake, or you’ve been criticized, or are starting a new job. In these moments you can feel hurt, humiliated, or overwhelmed, and your self-critical voices can be telling you that you don’t have real talent or that your reputation is at stake. Carol advises to become aware of your triggers, and when these arise show yourself some self-compassion by acknowledging the critical fixed mindset voice inside your head that’s undermining you. While it may be just trying to protect you, gently remind yourself that you are trying to develop a more growth mindset, and making mistakes is just part of this. Ask your inner self-critic to support you to take on new challenges and learn new things.
  • Broaden your talent criteria. The traditional approach to talent development usually means identifying a pool of future leaders with certain characteristics and focusing your efforts there, but by adopting a view that everyone has potential leaders can emerge from unexpected places. For example, one way Microsoft has supplemented their traditional talent development process is through an annual hackathon where anybody can propose an idea, assemble a team, and get some initial funding to take this further. Through this process, employees are developing leadership skills at every level.
  • Set moonshot goals. Go after grandiose ambitious goals, with the understanding that while some are going to hit the moon and catapult your organization into the future, others may not, but still can provide valuable learning and development opportunities. For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens holographic project began as a "moonshot goal" and, while team members knew that there was a strong likelihood the project could fail, they welcomed the chance to learn and develop insights that could drive the business forward.

What can you do to encourage more of a growth mindset in your organization?