Her studies show that people tend to have one of two belief systems that create their mindset about work, learning and their own abilities. (As you read on, you might find it useful to consider your own approach to learning and challenges.) Dweck says we all exhibit both fixed and growth mindsets in different circumstances, it’s worth keeping that in minds as you read on.
Fixed mindset Dweck describes as when people hold a belief that talent, ability and intelligence are things that you’re born with. It’s extraordinary how much of our language surrounding ability and performance is framed by this belief: ‘He’s very bright’, ‘She’s so talented’, ‘She’s a natural leader’, ‘He has a gift for languages’.
When you hold this mindset, you believe you either have it or you don’t, and there are a range of behaviours which reflect this world view. The first rule of a fixed mindset is look clever – always and at all costs. And if you’re not going to look clever, don’t do it. In the face of any setbacks, hide your mistakes and conceal your deficiencies, because the fixed mindset pre-supposes that mistakes and deficiencies are permanent and that’s going to be a black mark against you.
In her studies, Dweck has found that people with a fixed mindset say, “The main thing I want when I do my work is to show how good I am at it.” If this is you, you are likely to have managed your career by looking for roles that match your demonstrated abilities, where you know you can shine. You probably change jobs when the requirements change, because you’re bringing what you believe to be your innate, natural talents, you tend to tackle the new role in a similar way to how you worked in the last one, molding the role to your strengths and ways of working.
We frequently see these traits in senior leaders who introduce to a new company the same strategy that worked for them in their last company – irrespective of changes to the market, corporate climate or the differences between the two organisations themselves. In fact, because mindsets transfer to company culture and their beliefs about success it’s not unusual for recruitment briefs to also reflect the mindset of the leadership and request someone who has done the exact thing required in the job before.
When you hold this mindset, you believe your performance is a result of your innate talents. You are probably concerned about how you compare with others, how you rank and your reputation, and are quick to compare your performance with peers.
One of the downsides of having a predominately fixed mindset is, Dweck found, people exhibit less persistence and less ability to learn from experience. Their mental framework provides no mechanisms for dealing with setbacks and this can mean they’re reluctant to take on tricky assignments. Their readiness to change jobs can be less about enthusiasm for a new challenge than unwillingness to persist with current problems
when their performance may show up as less than excellent. Does any of this resonate for you?
During her research, Dweck scanned participants’ brains when they performed a task and made mistakes. Those with a fixed mindset showed considerably less brain activity compared to those with a growth mindset. The latter were actively processing errors in order to learn from them.
Dweck says those with a fixed mindset hold a belief that hard work and effort are to be avoided; successful people look cool and achieve things effortlessly. Her latest thinking describes organisations with this mindset about their people and talent processes as having ‘cultures of genius.’ They revere, hire, promote and reward people who are great at what they do. We have written more about this in an article this month.
In contrast, when you have a growth mindset you believe that your talent, abilities and intellect can be developed. Your primary rule is learn, learn and learn some more. You will be leaning over your shoulder when the new software programme’s being demonstrated, the first one to sign up for an optional seminar, you may even go on a course as part of your last holiday.
When you approach work with a growth mindset you think things like, “It’s much more important for me to have a challenge than to be rated the best.” Of course, you do care about ratings but you care even more about having an interesting, challenging role where you’re going to be exploring new areas and working with interesting and varied people.
Dweck says, it’s not about intelligence and talent, and even if these traits are in abundance, her research show people see them as simply a launch pad rather than the end-point. They believe that mistakes are part of learning. They see that deficiencies are part of being human and indicate they need to work harder or employ a different strategy. When holding a growth mindset people will actively seek out new things to learn, people to teach them and the next testing opportunity.
Dweck’s studies show that with a growth mindset people work harder, learn from experience and are willing to take more risks to achieve results. After a test, they’re not the people celebrating their high score but the ones grabbing the paper and saying, “Hang on, which question did I get wrong?” – a trait demonstrated in Dweck’s experiments.
Before you rush to write off all those fixed mindsets or despair at times when you have approach work like this, it’s important to note that the research found that individuals could be taught to adopt a growth mindset.
Dweck’s and her colleague Heslin’s research found that very simple changes can influence the mindsets of employees and managers. In their work, they trained managers to shift their beliefs in a short workshop which included exercises like thinking of times when they learnt something new, identifying people whose performance had changed for the better and pointing to examples in the company where people had learnt from challenges or experienced initial failure and gone on to be successful.
Heslin and Dweck carried out training and found the managers proceeded to coach more, give more performance suggestions and also notice the efforts of their employees more often. They checked the shift in beliefs six weeks later and the growth mindset was still in place.
In our own experience of running short, simple but powerful workshops (they can be as short as 90 minutes) it’s possible to turn managers’ beliefs from fixed to growth. Giving them exercises to do that get them to notice growth in themselves (as well as in others) is a highly effective way of doing this. And the best news is that the evidence suggests that the changes stick.
The thing about individual managers’ beliefs is that, collectively, they form an entire culture. That culture becomes the way everybody views talent and how it’s managed, assessed and developed.
Dweck says that when you leave mindsets alone they’re stable; people’s beliefs are not challenged and so they continue to think and act like they always have. But when people learn about mindsets and focus on times when they have had to learn something new and been successful, their beliefs can shift. When Peter Heslin, and Dweck assessed managers’ mindsets the employees were then asked how much the manager helped analyse performance, gave useful feedback, acted as a sounding board, inspired confidence and supported new challenges. Employees said that the managers with a growth mindset provided better developmental coaching. The research also found a link between mindset and the amount of coaching employees received.
Managers with a fixed mindset did little or no coaching, and nor did they give much performance feedback or help employees understand their strengths and weaknesses. The study also indicated that managers with a growth mindset noticed improvements in their employees, whereas those with a fixed mindset did not. After training, managers who had adopted a growth mindset (and those who had always had one) were more willing to coach and give constructive suggestions for improvement.
Managers with a fixed mindset are likely to avoid difficult conversations thinking there’s little point in confronting issues if people can’t change. The more difficult the problem, the less likely the manager is to deal with it. Whilst managers with a growth mindset are more likely to speak up and try to solve a tricky issue.
All this has a significant impact on performance management, engagement and other business processes. It also suggests that shifting mindsets is a prerequisite to successful training in handling difficult conversations and issues surrounding professional relationships.
Praise good and bad
For managers to have an impact on an employee’s performance and to help them develop a growth mindset, they should be praising effort and learning rather than achievement, as well as encouraging risk, debriefing learning, and noticing progress towards goals.
At work, employers speak admiringly of ‘being smart’. Dweck says this doesn’t work in high-change, high-challenge environments and that instead you should be giving people the tools to become more confident learners.
She found that when intelligence was praised, people in her study didn’t opt for a challenge – they wanted to work on something they knew they could do. When presented with a difficult challenge they lost their confidence, and their performance on an IQ test actually declined over the course of the study.
Those praised for their effort, on the other hand, performed better and were more confident about taking on difficult tasks. Their overall performance improved. It’s clear, then, that we need to praise the efforts people make and the struggles they undertake. As Dweck reports, “Someone said to me recently: ‘In your culture, struggle is a bad word.’ And it’s true: we never say, ‘Oh I had a fantastic struggle today,’ but we should.”
But Dweck says managers would do their staff a greater service by noticing and commenting on their efforts and the challenges they have overcome rather than just the results, and praising persistence in the face of setbacks. Similarly, recognising the thought that goes in to finding a strategy as well as the initiative to try out a new one is also a good idea.
She suggests encouraging employees to welcome a challenge, to get a kick from testing themselves, and to learn to bounce back when things don’t go as planned – all of which will help them build confidence, self-esteem and resilience.
So next time something seems difficult, notice what mindset you are bringing to the task and ensure you shift to growth.