Encourage a growth mindset in your workplace
By Madison Hanscom, PhD
Growth mindset is the notion that who we are as a person (e.g., our character, abilities, intelligence) is malleable and capable of being developed with effort. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a fixed mindset, which describes when an individual feels their talents and abilities are predetermined and not flexible. Those with a more fixed mindset might feel some people “have it” and others “don’t”. Research on this topic began in education, where it was observed that students with a growth mindset approached difficulty as a challenge, and they were more likely to persevere with success despite setbacks. Students with a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset had higher motivation, effort, and school outcomes (like math grades) (1).
This also extends to adults in the workplace. Employees with a higher growth mindset experience higher engagement, improved task performance, more creativity, and higher job satisfaction (2-6). Not only is it beneficial for employees to have a growth mindset, it is advantageous for leadership to embrace this way of thinking, too. The pioneer of growth mindset, Carol Dweck, explains how “many managers do not believe in personal change. These fixed-mindset managers simply look for existing talent — they judge employees as competent or incompetent at the start and that’s that … when employees do improve, they may fail to take notice, remaining stuck in their initial impression. What’s more, they are far less likely to seek or accept critical feedback from their employees” (7). This clearly is a problem. Managers should be committed to developing their people and work with them to reach to the desired state.
Carol has also explained, “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. In contrast, people at primarily fixed-mindset companies report more of only one thing: cheating and deception among employees, presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race” (8).
What can leaders do to encourage growth mindset in the workplace?
Lead the charge.
When leaders look inward and embody a growth mindset, others are more likely to follow. Leaders demonstrate what is valued by the organization, thus they are an effective model of desired change for all members. Have open conversations about developing your own growth mindset and take steps to create growth-oriented language when speaking about your own work. For more about how to exemplify this mindset for your own personal success, see this blog on how to embrace a growth mindset.
Recognize effort rather than ability.
When providing feedback to those you work with, be conscious of how you deliver the message. A key to developing a growth mindset is to focus on the journey — the effort along the way — rather than the destination. If someone didn’t meet the mark on a report, you will certainly let them know what should be improved next time, but you will also let them know what was valuable along the way (e.g., their effort, how they got help from others, how they were persistent, how they tried a new approach). This way you are recognizing learning and development, not just an outcome. When providing praise, let them know specifically what they did to contribute to that success. Not only will this highlight the behavior and exertion, it will help them know specifically what to do next time. Get them involved in this process – ask where they think the effort was met, and where they can improve next time.
Use the word, “yet”.
Including the word “yet” when speaking with employees is a great way to establish a growth mindset. If an employee remarks they can’t do something (“I can’t lead that meeting on my own!” ), it is up to a leader to remind them they can’t do it “yet”. The implication here is that abilities are fluid and with growth over time, they can stretch to new possibilities.
When teaching a growth mindset, it is important to replace the notion of “failing” with “learning”. When a mistake is made, it is not a time to blame someone or make excuses. It is a time to learn and get better in the future. People with a growth mindset see failure as a steppingstone and all part of the journey as long as lessons learned are integrated into the next attempt. In order for this to be successful, leaders must consider how they will foster a sense of psychological safety for people to speak up without negative consequences. Employees must feel comfortable to be vulnerable. Try having people speak openly at meetings about failure so it becomes normal and safe to do so (or practice this yourself). Instead of sweeping failure under the rug and pushing on, take time to debrief and reflect.
It’s not enough to preach that your company has a growth mindset orientation — it must be authentic. Employees get frustrated when something is espoused by leadership (“We have a growth mindset at our company” ) but then not enacted (e.g., people are not encouraged to innovate or are frowned upon for making mistakes). Growth must be deeply embedded into all levels of the company. There must be trainings on how to practice growth-oriented thinking, it is present in the performance management system, leaders work on it themselves, there is psychological safety when it comes to speaking up about mistakes and lessons learned. If it is not embedded into the culture, the benefits will not emerge.
Those with a growth mindset understand the importance of both positive and constructive feedback. Ensure feedback is specific, it is about the person’s behavior and not their character, it is future-oriented, is includes coaching and actionable steps, and it is timely.
Rather than selecting one or two “star performers” to coach for future success, try to develop everyone on the team. Leaders with growth mindsets recognize the strengths in everyone and understand that expanding the talent across the whole team is better for the organization than just a single individual.
This won’t happen overnight. This in an ongoing process. Also, researchers acknowledge that no individual is 100% set in a growth mindset. We all likely will have moments where we slide into fixed thinking. Expect this to happen — and then learn from it!
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”― Mahatma Gandhi.
At Propulo, we work with leaders to develop micro-habits associated with effective leadership behaviors. We can help your company make wellbeing “who we are” instead of “something we do.” Partner with us to improve the world of work using the latest insights from research. Our team has the expertise to help your business build a safer and healthier culture.
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(7) Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
(8) Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review, 13, 213-226.