How does a person’s way of looking at themselves factor in to their success in life? It isn’t a simple matter of self-belief.
We all know people with a wildly inflated sense of self-worth without the track record to back it up.
Nor is it a matter of being born “talented,” as we’ve also seen promising musicians fade from the charts overnight. What quality allows some people to transform failure into success?
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck offers an answer, and it all depends on the mindset with which we approach problems and learning. The question is not if someone is smart or has natural ability, but if they are in a growth mindset or a fixed one.
Characteristics of a Growth Mindset
The defining belief of a growth mindset is that one’s abilities are not static and can be developed over time. People with a growth mindset tend to focus on a process of continuous improvement rather looking intelligent or saving face. They know that failing or making mistakes does not reflect on their worth as a person and represents a learning opportunity. A growth mindset leaves people more open and responsive to feedback, because it doesn’t threaten their sense of self.
This mindset is resilient, approaches challenges with excitement, and is hungry to learn. Growth mindset people are more likely to offer a compliment like “You really learned a lot in solving that problem,” than “You’re so smart for solving that problem.”
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. This state comes with the belief that a person’s traits and abilities are both innate and defining—if you’re smart, you’re smart. End of story. For fixed mindset people, failure or setbacks can be traumatic. They believe any negative result came about because of some innate personal lack in themselves. Someone like this was perhaps told their whole life they are smart, so they become fearful of taking risks at work which might expose their capacity for error.
You won’t see a pure growth or fixed mindset out in the world because everyone is carrying a shifting mixture of mindsets. There are labels we subscribe to about our abilities and even draw pride from, but most of us also have an innate curiosity and drive to better ourselves. We must be careful about being provoked into a fixed mindset though, because it can inhibit our personal growth.
Going Beyond Talent
A growth mindset is not just about being positive or open-minded but being willing to do the hard work of real learning. Natural talent is a wonderful gift to have, but even talented people need a framework to stay engaged and reach their highest potential. If talented people fall into a fixed mindset, they tend to stop believing in effort.
Microsoft recently changed to a growth mindset framework for developing leaders.
Microsoft certainly has a deep pool of talented employees to groom and develop, but they also recently changed to a growth mindset framework for developing leaders. This approach uncovered individuals who would be passed over in a company culture which values the fixed mindset. By giving employees the chance to step outside their comfort zones and gain new skills, they’ve started to identify great potential leaders who are excited about rapid, iterative learning. These people have even gone on to senior-level roles at a faster than average rate.
It also turns out that regardless of talent, people increasingly want development opportunities where they can build on their existing abilities: 87 percent of millennials consider professional development or career growth opportunities to be very important in a job.
The Business Case for a Growth Mindset
Businesses grow and evolve as their employees do. If employees are encouraged to pursue learning and growth, it follows that the organization should be quick to evolve as well. In research, organizations which emphasize learning are 46 percent more likely to be first to market, 58 percent more prepared to meet future demand, and 37 percent more productive.
People pull together to achieve goals in growth mindset organizations, because they aren’t busy trying to save face or competing with their peers. These individuals are 47 percent likelier to say they trust their colleagues and 34 percent likelier to feel a strong sense of commitment to the company. They’re able to form effective teams and accomplish meaningful goals.
Keeping people in a mindset of growth and learning is to keep them highly productive as well.
On an individual level, the way we give feedback has some unexpected effects. When people are praised for effort (growth mindset), they tend to work harder. When they’re praised for “being smart” (fixed mindset) they stop. Keeping people in a mindset of growth and learning is to keep them highly productive as well.
Psychologically, Dweck explains that even positive labels can become oppressive in a fixed mindset because, “they make flaws intolerable.”
In one experiment, Dweck gave feedback to put the subjects into the different mindsets, then administered a difficult test, and finally asked them to write a note to a friend about their experience of the study. She found those in the fixed mindset were 40 percent more likely to lie about their score.
Incorporating Continuous Growth at Work
How can we harness the power of a growth mindset at work? The way we administer feedback and evaluation is great space to shift people’s thought process.
Cigna, for example, moved to a real-time feedback system which helped their employees become more collaborative and in step. As a result, 72 percent of Cigna employees in a survey said they understand how their goals align with the company’s success, and they were 34 percent more likely to feel a sense of ownership and commitment to its future.
Actionable, real-time feedback along with growth-focused goal-setting and 360 reviews helps to guide and support employees in their learning rather than trying to course-correct after the fact. This method of responsive feedback keeps people on the path of productive effort, so they’re maximizing their development.
The content of feedback is important as well. Feedback praising the learning and growth process rather than “innate” talent or strengths will help move people into a growth mindset. Think more of “A mistake happened, what can we learn from it?” over “A mistake happened, so your performance isn’t up to par.”
When feedback supports sharing of information, collaboration, and calculated risk-taking it encourages people to keep people growing and learning. These are the future leaders who will be able to weather any problem and come out ahead.