Why are some leaders resolute in the face of failure, while others flee? The work of Professor Carol Dweck sheds some light on the question.
Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, whose body of work has explored the spectrum of mindsets out there in the face of a challenge, a tragic event and massive successes. She’s noted in her book that as a young researcher, she was fascinated while observing young children, and how they reacted differently when presented with a problem; some faced it head-on, while others ran away and hoped the problem would disappear. “I’ve always been interested in why some children wilt and shrink back from challenges and give up in the face of obstacles while others avidly seek challenges and become even more invested in the face of obstacles,” she told The Atlantic.
“At some point, my graduate students and I realised that a student’s mindset was at the foundation of whether they loved challenges and persisted in the face of failure,” she said. Dweck has conceptualised this in the form of two different mindsets: a fixed mindset, and a growth mindset. “When students had more of a fixed mindset – the idea that abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount and that’s that – they saw challenges as risky.” Whereas on the other side of the fence, students with a growth mindset believed that their knowledge and abilities could always be improved and that approaching challenges head-on was the best means to ensure consistent development. “With a growth mindset, kids don’t necessarily think that there’s no such thing as talent or that everyone is the same, but they believe everyone can develop their abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others,” she says.
In a post on the Harvard Business Review, Dweck explains that “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning. When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.”
On the other side of the spectrum, then, are people working in an organisation with a largely fixed-mindset approach to doing business, which Dweck says “report more of only one thing: cheating and deception among employees presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race.” You can see that an organisation with a fixed mindset is essentially sabotaging itself from the inside, and wreaking havoc on its staff members who don’t get to benefit from positive workplace culture, or being empowered by their leader.
Dweck says that it’s not an easy feat for individuals and companies alike to truly embody the principles of a growth mindset. “When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth,” she says. “A company that plays the talent game makes it harder for people to practice growth-mindset thinking and behaviour, such as sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback or admitting errors.”
The popularity of Dweck’s research has led the concept of growth mindsets to actually be misconstrued and caused the author to even outline some of the common misconceptions around the theory. First of all, she explained that as ‘growth mindset’ becomes a buzzword for both personal and professional development, they often confuse the term with being flexible, open-minded or retaining a positive outlook. “My colleagues and I call this a false growth mindset, and that mixture continually evolves with experience. A ‘pure’ growth mindset doesn’t exist,” she says, explaining that it’s essential to first acknowledge, in order to attain.
The second misconception she cleared up is that encouraging a growth mindset isn’t about praising and rewarding effort- explaining that “unproductive effort is never a good thing. It’s critical to reward not just effort but learning and progress, and to emphasize the processes that yield these things, such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies and capitalising on setbacks to move forward effectively.”
Third and finally, Dweck says that superficially embracing a growth mindset doesn’t necessarily produce results. “Mission statements are wonderful things,” she says, “you can’t argue with lofty values like growth, empowerment, or innovation. But what do they mean to employees if the company doesn’t implement policies to make them real and attainable?” she asks. “They just amount to lip service.” The key here is to support your words with actions and deeds and to encourage the consistent development of the people around you with opportunities.
We thought it was important to get this directly from the author and researcher that has spent years of her life devoted to exploring the growth mindset, and in future articles, we’re going to further take it apart, and apply it more to the context of highly effective organisations.