Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of fixed and growth mindsets is just a brilliant way of expressing some of the leadership attributes that are most essential in modern, agile businesses. We touch on it briefly in the book, but it’s worth exploring further.
There are, says Carol (in ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’), key differences in how we view our personality. A ‘fixed’ mindset is founded in the view that your intelligence, character and creative ability are static and so cannot change in meaningful ways. Success is an affirmation of those inherent attributes which compare favourably to other fixed standards. Avoiding failure and striving for success become critical ways to maintain the feeling of being skilled, smart or accomplished, and so pursued at all costs.
In contrast a ‘growth’ mindset relishes challenges and sees them as an opportunity to learn, and failure as an opportunity to grow and improve.
The context of Dweck’s research is mainly focused on children, students and how they learn but I think there are strong parallels to defining what successful organisational cultures and leadership look like in the modern world.
In Dweck’s research (summarised in the video above), children with fixed and growth mindsets demonstrated very different approaches and goals. Those with the latter recognised the need for effort, work and practice in order to improve. Their goal was to learn at all times and at all costs. Conversely those students with fixed mindsets were afraid to try new things in case it made them look dumb. Their goal was to look smart at all costs and to avoid tasks that might show deficiency.
More than this, there was a key dynamic in the relationship between ability and effort. Those with fixed mindsets believed that if you have the inherent ability then you don’t need to put in the real effort. Any setbacks simply reveal their limitations and so they try to avoid deficiencies or failure at all costs, and have no way to effectively handle real difficulty. Growth mindset children however, believe in improvement through effort and practice, and relish hard challenges as an opportunity to learn.
Dweck says that this difference is a fundamental reason behind so many students not reaching their full potential. With the universal need for continuous improvement, and more than ever for rapid and constant learning, I believe that these different mindsets and cultures are a fundamental reason why so many organisations fail to reach their full potential. An organisational mindset that rewards leaders for looking smart and never admitting when they don’t know the answer or have made a mistake, is a culture that will not support learning. A business that is too focused on outputs to the detriment of how those results will be achieved is one that will struggle to find new and potentially exceptional alternatives.
Dweck has shown that these mindsets can be transmitted through words and actions. If we are to embed a culture of continuous learning in an organisation we need to be very attuned to the behaviours that we support and those that we discourage. With children, Dweck has shown that praising intelligence rather than effort encourages a fixed mindset from a very early age. It can turn students off from learning. Instead, praising the process, the strategies, or the effort leads to a desire to persist, to experiment, and to learn at all times. We need to take the same approaches with our teams.
These behaviours are very subtle and yet the value system that we create within organisations are hugely powerful determinants of success and failure. In the modern world we need to regard every initiative as an opportunity to learn and we need to recognise the importance of behaviours that support a growth mindset and culture.
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