The rapidly increasing complexities of modern business mean that if we are not effective at learning we will flounder and our team or our business may fail.  Some of the biggest brands have disappeared from our high streets because too many of their leaders and managers had the wrong mindset.  Is your mindset helping or hindering your performance or the performance of your business?

Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of learning and motivation. She and her team have conducted numerous experiments that demonstrate the dangers of fixed thinking and how many difficult situations can be overcome when people adopt a ‘Growth Mindset’. 

The Mixed Power Of Praise
In one of her experiments Dweck selected 400 children from across the US, gave them a simple test and praised them in two ways.  One group was praised for their intelligence and told “Well done, you must be really smart at this”.  The other group were praised for their effort and told “Well done, you must have worked really hard at this”.  The results that these subtly different approaches produced were remarkable. 

The next stage of the experiment gave both groups of children a choice for the next test. For the first option they were told it would be a harder version giving them a great opportunity to learn and grow.  The second option was explained as an easy version similar to the first and they were told that they will surely do well at it.  67% of the group that was praised for their intelligence chose the easier option while 92% of the children who were praised for their effort chose the harder version.  This is significant and Dweck explains “the adult or child hears: Oh, you think I’m brilliant and talented.  That’s why you value me.   I better not do anything that will disprove this evaluation.  As a result they enter a fixed mindset, they play it safe in the future and they limit the growth of their talents”.  She goes on to say “focusing on the strategies they use, the way they are stretching themselves and taking on hard tasks, or the intense practice they are doing, says to a child or adult ‘it’s about the process of growth’. As a result they don’t think ‘if I make a mistake you won’t think I’m talented’, they think ‘if I don’t take on hard things and stick to them I’m not going to grow’”.

They then gave all the children a very difficult test to see how they would approach it.  The group praised for effort, worked harder, longer and actually enjoyed the test.  The group praised for intelligence got very frustrated with the test and had a tendency to give up early.  Finally, after artificially creating a setback for the children with the very difficult test, they gave them a last test that was as easy as the very first one. 

The results of this last test were very surprising and they tell us about the dangers of adopting a fixed mindset.  The group praised for their intelligence actually dropped their average scores by 20% from their original scores.  The group praised for their effort increased their average score by 30%.  This is a massive 50% difference in performance caused by a subtle difference in the way they were praised.

Those of you who have young children may need to think about how you praise your children, but what insights does this provide for the world of work, leadership and management? 

Identifying Our Mindset
We can easily adopt a fixed mindset in the way we approach our work by saying that others are naturally good at something and ‘I’ll never be able to do that’ or any attitude that says ‘you need to be born with it’, or ‘this is just the way I am’.  Do any of these sound familiar?

The neuroscientists are discovering that the brain, and even intelligence, is far from fixed.  It is actually very malleable and we can grow new neurons and new connections in our brain that make us more intelligent.  But it takes significant effort.  A growth mindset enjoys this effort and takes action on a regular basis to activate it.  Just like if you want to improve your health you need to exercise the key muscle groups in your body with a variety of exercises that stretch you to the limit of your current ability, if you want to improve your intelligence you need to exercise your brain by thinking in new ways, taking some risks and making some mistakes.  If you ask any successful person about the mistakes they have made they will probably recount hundreds of them because they tend to have made many more mistakes than unsuccessful people.  The key thing is that they recovered from them, leant the lesson and moved on with new understanding and growth.

Studies show that people who hold a grudge or have beliefs like ‘that’s just the way things are and there is nothing you can do about it’, or ‘that group of people will never change’ have a fixed mindset.  This fixed mindset prevents them from exploring options and challenging the status quo.  It also creates a tendency for stubbornness; ‘I don’t want to be wrong (I’ll look stupid)’ and even arrogance; ‘I’m better than others’.  Setbacks are seen as reasons or excuses to give up.  The studies show that people with a fixed mindset build their self-esteem by comparing themselves to others who are less able, cheating about scores and seeking easy problems over and over again. 

A growth mindset creates willingness and eagerness, to step outside your comfort zone with optimism about what will be learned and how it will help growth, development and improvement.  Setbacks are interpreted as feedback along the way about what doesn’t work and provide a signal that more effort is required.  Experiencing difficulty just proves how determined and tough you are and this improves self-esteem.   

Looking back it is easy to see how so many of the Bankers that almost destroyed the global economy had a fixed mindset.  They didn’t listen to the feedback that things were not right in the system.  They thought it would simply go on for ever because they were so bright.

Like motivation, your mindset is influenced by context.  So you may want to consider if there are any contexts where you have a fixed mindset.  Is it hindering your performance, or perhaps some of your relationships?  How many of your people have a fixed mindset about their work?  What impact is this having on your business? 

4 Steps To Increase Learning And Growth
Dr. Carol Dweck has some good advice for changing from a fixed to a growth mindset which I have reproduced below.  She has already done some great work with disadvantaged teenagers in America and she is currently working with some of the most challenging cultural situations on the planet, by providing workshops for Israelis and Palestinians to help them overcome some of the very entrenched and fixed mindsets they have about one another.  

Step 1 – It is important to identify and learn to hear your Fixed Mindset “voice.” 
– For example, as you approach a challenge, that voice might say to you “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” “What if you fail—you’ll be a failure.”  “If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.”

– If you hit a setback or obstacle, the voice might say, “This would have been easy if you really had talent.” “You see, I told you it was a risk. Now you’ve shown the world how useless you are.” “It’s not too late to back out, make excuses, and try to regain your dignity.”

– If you face criticism, you might hear yourself say, “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” You might feel yourself getting angry at the person who is giving you feedback. “Who do they think they are? I’ll put them in their place.” The other person might be giving you specific, constructive feedback, but you might be hearing them say “I’m really disappointed in you. I thought you were capable but now I see you’re not.”

Step 2 – Recognise that you have a choice.
You always have a choice about how you interpret challenges, setbacks and criticism.  You can interpret them as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking.  Or you can interpret them as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself and expand your abilities. It’s up to you to decide your approach.

Step 3 – Talk back to the Fixed Mindset voice with a Growth Mindset voice.
– As you approach a challenge:

The Fixed-Mindset says: “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.”

The Growth-Mindset answers, “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”

The Fixed-Mindset: “What if you fail—you’ll be a failure”

The Growth-Mindset: “Most successful people had failures along the way.”

The Fixed-Mindset: “If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.”

The Growth-Mindset: “If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”

– As you hit a setback:

The Fixed-Mindset: “This would have been easy if you really had talent.”

The Growth-Mindset: “That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.

– As you face criticism:

The Fixed-Mindset: “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.”

The Growth-Mindset: “If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is – and learn whatever I can.”

Step 4 – Take the Growth Mindset action.
– Over time, the voice you heed becomes your natural choice.  Whether you take on the challenge wholeheartedly, learn from your setbacks and try again is now in your hands.  Whether you hear the criticism and act on it or not, is a matter for you to choose.

– Practice hearing both voices, and practice acting on the growth mindset. See how you can make it work for you.

The phrases above are also a clue for how to give (and how not to give) feedback to others.  If you feel some of your people have a fixed mindset you may want to share this article with them and then discuss how they may have fallen into a habit of listening to their Fixed Mindset voice because they may not be aware that there is an alternative.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts and opinions about any of the above so drop me a line at

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen