Nurturing a Culture of Growth

Why we should worry less about mindsets and more about organizations.

Posted Apr 23, 2019

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Growth mindsets have been a paradigm-shifting concept in education, indicating that students’ belief in their ability to change can improve educational outcomes and reduce social inequities in achievement. A growth mindset has benefits outside of the classroom, as well, such as improved social and mental health and enhanced diversity in the workplace. Importantly, many interventions have shown that a growth mindset can be cultivated at practically any age. But recent studies suggest problems with how we conceptualize growth mindsets and how they impact our behavior.

First, we talk about a growth mindset like we do a tree—with sufficient water and sunlight, it will grow tall and could never be felled. A growth mindset, however, is less like a tree and more like a flower, opening and closing depending on the environment. As I detail below, our parents, teachers, and employers can all change our theories on intelligence in subtle, implicit ways.

And like a flower, a growth mindset will wither if planted in bad soil. Because these beliefs respond to the world around us, a well-designed intervention to instill a growth mindset will only be effective within a supportive environment. Moreover, once an individual is displaced into an environment that favors a fixed mindset, they will adapt to those circumstances and the intervention will be nullified. We need to stop thinking about a growth mindset as something we must implant into people, and focus instead on how to foster a culture of growth in our homes, our schools, and our businesses.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset at Home

For some time now, parents have been given steadfast advice on how to promote a growth mindset in their children: praise effort, not outcomes. But new research by Drs. Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck suggests that praise might have nothing to do with it. Instead, children appear to be more sensitive to how their parents react to their failures.

Parents’ own mindsets—growth or fixed—do not appear to predict their children’s beliefs about intelligence. Instead, parents who perceive failure as a debilitating experience that inhibits learning and productivity are more likely to show concern about their child’s lack of innate ability when they fail at school. Children, in turn, sense that their parents care more about performance than learning, which helps to instill a fixed mindset. Parents who perceive failure as a learning opportunity, however, are more supportive when their children fail and are more likely to have children with a growth mindset. Thus, parents’ underlying and unobservable belief in growth matters little if their outward behavior during a sensitive event reinforces a fixed mindset.

Building Growth Mindsets in the Classroom

Much work has focused on encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset, but less attention has been paid to teachers’ mindsets. In a new study, Dr. Elizabeth Canning and colleagues examined the academic performance of over 15,000 undergraduates who took science courses from 150 different professors. Reflective of current demographics in academia, just over half of the professors held tenure, over a fourth were women, and about 5 percent identified with underrepresented minority groups. The researchers measured these professors’ mindsets about intelligence and used those scores to predict students’ performance in their classes.

Students earned worse grades, in general, from professors with a fixed versus a growth mindset. More importantly, however, underrepresented minority students underperformed by nearly 0.2 points compared to White and Asian students in courses taught by a professor with a fixed mindset—twice the racial disparity observed when professors held a growth mindset. In courses led by a fixed mindset professor, students reported less motivation to do their best work and were less likely to feel that their professor emphasized learning and development. As with parents, the implicit messages conveyed by professors’ classroom demeanor seemed to have a profound impact on students’ performance.

Displaying a Growth Mindset at Work

Beyond our years of formal education, our career can impact our views on intelligence. Drs. Mary Murphy and Carol Dweck have shown that an organization’s values deeply influence our own beliefs and behaviors. When an exclusive college club espoused a fixed mindset, not only did students focus on their intelligence in their applications rather than their motivation, they shifted their own self-concept to believe that intelligence is more important than motivation to who they are as a person. When the club endorsed a growth mindset, however, students highlighted how motivated they are when applying and believed motivation to be more important to their self-identity.

These shifts in self-concept have implications for how we behave professionally. In a follow-up study, college students were asked to evaluate candidates for program coordinator for this exclusive club. Two candidates’ qualifications were practically identical, except one focused on their intelligence while the other focused on their motivation. When the club was portrayed as having a fixed mindset, nearly 80 percent of students hired the “smart” candidate. When the club supported a growth mindset, however, students hired the “motivated” candidate over 90% of the time.

Implications for a Growth Mindset Culture

Although programs to instill growth mindsets from an early age likely have some benefit, these studies suggest that the environment often trumps these efforts. Someone whose parents supported them through childhood failures and cultivated within them a growth mindset will likely still be held back by a STEM teacher with a fixed mindset. Likewise, someone who graduated college with a fixed mindset may still adapt their beliefs when hired by a corporation with a growth mindset.

So if a growth mindset is like a flower, we need to work more on the garden and worry less about each individual bulb. In other words, instead of just promoting growth mindsets within students and employees, it’s time we focus on fundamentally changing organizations. By creating educational and occupational cultures that value growth, learning, and failure, we can achieve the benefits of a growth mindset in a more meaningful and long-lasting way.

References

Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5, 1-7.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Parents’ views of failure predict children’s fixed and growth intelligence mind-sets. Psychological Science, 27(6), 859-869.

Murphy, M. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2010). A culture of genius: How an organization’s lay theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 283-296.